Angus Trumble on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and company's curious but longstanding fixation with the furry oddity that is the wombat — that "most beautiful of God's creatures" which found its way into their poems, their art, and even, for a brief while, their homes.
January 10, 2019
In 1857, the English artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti — central figure of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and by then a national celebrity — was commissioned to decorate the vaulted ceiling, upper walls and windows of the Oxford Union library. He mustered a large group of helpers, including his new Oxford undergraduate friends (and future leading artists) Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.
While the murals were being painted with scenes taken from Arthurian legend — rather badly, as it turned out, because they have since deteriorated beyond recognition — the glass panes of the windows were painted over to reduce the glare coming through onto the walls. These whitewashed surfaces were soon covered with sketches drawn or scratched into the paint, mostly depictions of one particular animal. The wombat.
These soon vanished because, of course, when the frescoes were finished the whitewash was removed. Edward Burne-Jones was supposed to have done the best ones, and he continued to produce them for many years. A rather overheated Egyptological example, shown whizzing past the pyramids, was much later chosen by Lady Burne-Jones as an illustration for the part of her memoir that dealt with the Oxford Union episode.
Recalling the hugely enjoyable experience of working in the Oxford Union, another artist — helper Val Prinsep — recalled: ‘Rossetti was the planet around which we revolved, we copied his way of speaking. All beautiful women were “stunners” with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.’
Only one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood actually visited Australia — the sculptor Thomas Woolner who, after failing to earn a proper living with his art, emigrated there to seek his fortune on the goldfields. The Pre-Raphaelites and their friends met regularly to read aloud from the letter–journals that Woolner sent home. He had no luck at all, and did not like the Australian landscape. He confided to his diary that he thought it topsy-turvy. The seasons were the wrong way around, as were the times of day. The birds, he claimed, did not sing, cherries grew with their stones on the outside of the fruit, the trees shed their bark, not their leaves, and so on. On one occasion he was shocked to encounter the fragrance of lilac because he had made his mind up that Australia was scentless, barren, "a land without fruit or vegetable". Although wombats don’t get a specific mention in the surviving letters, it is quite possible he brought word of the exotic marsupial home with him when he moved back to England just a year later.
Of course, the Pre-Raphaelites were not the first English to become enamoured by the unusual creature. Wombats captured the attention of English naturalists as soon as they found out about them from early settlers, explorers, and naturalists at the time of first contact. The Aboriginal word wombat was first recorded near Port Jackson, and though variants such as wombach, womback, the wom-bat and womat were noted, the present form of the name stuck very early, from at least 1797. Beautiful drawings survive from the 1802 voyages of the Investigator and Le Géographe. Ferdinand Bauer, who sailed with Matthew Flinders, and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, who was in the rival French expedition of Nicolas Baudin, both drew the creature. These were engraved and carefully studied at home. Wombats were admired for their stumpy strength, their patience, their placid, not to say congenial manners, and also a kind of stoic determination. Occasionally they were thought clumsy, insensible or even stupid, but these isolated observations are out of step with the majority of nineteenth-century opinion.
From about 1803, a steady trickle of live wombats reached Europe. We know there was a wombat among the birds and animals that were delivered to the menagerie of the Empress Joséphine Bonaparte at Malmaison, near Paris. Another early wombat owner was the English naturalist Everard Home, whose paper on the subject, "An Account of Some Peculiarities in the Anatomical Structure of the Wombat", appeared in March 1809 in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts. Home’s wombat, a male, was in fact caught by George Bass, probably on King Island, where we know Bass and his companions shot several other specimens. Once provoked, this particular wombat put up a splendid struggle, tearing strips off Bass’s coat sleeves and making loud "whizzing" noises. Evidently he took ages to calm down. Bass kept him alive, looked after him well, and sent him to England. There, in London, he lived in what Home described as "a domesticated state for two years". The following description is no less charming today than it must have been for English scientific readers nearly two centuries ago.
[The wombat] burrowed in the ground whenever it had an opportunity, and covered itself in the earth with surprising quickness. It was quiet during the day, but constantly in motion in the night: was very sensible to cold; ate all kinds of vegetables; but was particularly fond of new hay, which it ate stalk by stalk, taking it into its mouth like a beaver, by small bits at a time. It was not wanting in intelligence, and appeared attached to those to whom it was accustomed, and who were kind to it. When it saw them, it would put up its forepaws on the knee, and when taken up would sleep in the lap. It allowed children to pull and carry it about, and when it bit them did not appear to do it in anger or with violence.
Some misconceptions lingered for decades. In 1827 an engraver working for the museum in Newcastle had the wombat sitting up like a kangaroo, something that clearly escaped notice throughout the galley and page-proof stages of publication.
But the most important development in the establishment of the wombat’s English reputation was the appearance in 1855 of John Gould’s de luxe The Mammals of Australia. Gould was in Australia much earlier, in the 1830s, and it was certainly through Gould that the artist Edward Lear, who illustrated Gould’s Birds but unfortunately not the Mammals, made a wonderful sheet of whimsical drawings of the "Inditchenous Beestes of New Olland", a rarity which is today in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. These are plausibly accurate caricatures of various species of kangaroo and wallaby, the platypus, the "possum up his gum tree" and the Tasmanian Devil. There are also mad renderings of the bandicoot, echidna, and native cat, not to mention representative appearances in the margin of the cow, the dog, the sheep, and the horse. Splendidly rotund and occupying the largest amount of space towards the bottom centre of the sheet is the wombat, with "his i".
In its habits it is nocturnal, living in the deep stony burrows excavated by itself, during the day, and emerging on the approach of evening, but seldom trusting itself far from its stronghold, to which it immediately runs for safety on the appearance of an intruder. The natives state, however, that it sometimes indulges in a long ramble, and, if a river should cross its course, quietly walks into the water and traverses the bottom of the stream until it reaches the other side … In its disposition it is quiet and docile in the extreme, soon becoming familiar with and apparently attached to those that feed it; as an evidence of which, I may mention that the two specimens which are now and have been for a long period living in the Gardens of the Zoological Society in the Regent’s Park, not only admit the closest inspection, but may be handled and scratched by all who choose to make so intimate an acquaintance with them.
In the 1860s, Rossetti often took his friends to visit the wombats at the zoo, sometimes for hours on end. On one occasion Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown: "Dear Brown: Lizzie and I propose to meet Georgie and Ned [the Burne-Jones] at 2 pm tomorrow at the Zoological Gardens—place of meeting, the Wombat’s Lair." In this period a number of new wombats arrived at the Regent’s Park Zoo: a rare, hairy-nosed wombat on July 24, 1862, and two common wombats despatched from the Melbourne Zoo on March 18, 1863. Rossetti also made regular visits with his brother, William Michael, to the Acclimatisation Society in London and its counterpart in Paris, to keep an eye on the hairy-nosed wombats residing in both places. This was no passing fancy.
Earlier, in 1862, Rossetti had moved to Tudor House, at 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Spacious, with plenty of room for family and friends including George Meredith and the poet and semi-professional sadomasochist Algernon Charles Swinburne — who liked to slide naked down the banisters — the house had four-fifths of an acre of garden, with lime trees and a big mulberry. As soon as he arrived, Rossetti began to fill the garden with exotic birds and animals. There were owls, two or more armadillos, rabbits, dormice, and a racoon that hibernated in a chest of drawers. There were peacocks, parakeets, and kangaroos and wallabies, about which we know frustratingly little. There was a Canadian marmot or woodchuck, a Pomeranian puppy called Punch, an Irish deerhound called Wolf, a Japanese salamander, and two laughing jackasses. We know the neighbours were tolerant up to a point but Thomas Carlyle, for one, was driven mad by the noise. At length there was a small Brahmin bull that had to go when it chased Rossetti around the garden, and, in September 1869, a long-awaited wombat, the culmination of well over twelve years of enthusiasm for the exotic marsupial.
Shortly before this date there had been a number of animal deaths at Cheyne Walk, so Rossetti raised the animal-collecting stakes considerably. In November 1867, he was negotiating with his supplier of wild animals, Charles Jamrach. His object was to purchase a young African elephant, but he balked at the price of £400. Rossetti’s income for 1865 was £2000. Rossetti finally arranged to buy a wombat, again through Jamrach, when at length a suitable specimen became available. This wombat arrived when he was away in Scotland recovering from a kind of breakdown, largely precipitated by failing eyesight, insomnia, drugs, and above all his growing infatuation with Jane Morris, the wife of his old friend and protégé from the Oxford Union days.
A remarkable drawing of Jane Morris and the wombat in the British Museum illustrates the degree to which lover and pet merged in Rossetti’s mind as objects of sanctification. Each of them wears a halo. But Jane has the wombat on a leash, and it seems clear that Rossetti also used his pet wombat as a cruelly comical emblem for Jane’s long-suffering, cuckolded husband. Since university days William Morris was known to his friends as "Topsy"; the name Rossetti chose for his Wombat was "Top".
Meanwhile, within days, Rossetti’s sister, Christina, had sent him breathless verses in Italian entitled "O Uommibatto", in which she described the animal as "agil, giocondo" (nimble, cheerful), as well as "irsuto e tondo" (hairy and round). Writing from Scotland a few days later, Rossetti asked his brother William Michael also to thank Christina for the "shrine in the Italian taste, which she has reared for the wombat. I fear his habits tend inveterately to drain architecture … It appears the wombat follows people all over the house!" At last, Rossetti returned to London on September 20, and the next day wrote to William Michael his most famous and suggestive remark about the new addition to his menagerie: "The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness." Unfortunately, the poor wombat was also an invalid.
From the beginning, William Michael had sensed that something was wrong: "I went round to see the beast, which is the most lumpish and incapable of wombats, with an air of baby objectlessness — not much more than half-grown probably. He is much addicted to following one about the room, and nestling up against one, and nibbling one’s calves or trousers." Top the wombat also got on well with the other animals, particularly the rabbits.
Soon, however, Top was ailing. William Michael wrote: "The wombat shows symptoms of some malady of the mange-kind, and he is attended by a dog doctor." The next day: "Saw the wombat again at Chelsea. I much fear he shows already decided symptoms of loss of sight which effects so many wombats." At length, on November 6, the wombat died. Rossetti had him stuffed and afterwards displayed in the front hall.
These verses are in fact Rossetti’s parody of the opening lines of "The Fire Worshippers" a poem that appeared in a curious, but hugely popular novel by Thomas Moore called Lallah Rookh, published in 1817, which is all about the betrothal of the Emperor’s daughter to a foreign prince, and the journey she undertook from Delhi to Kashmir to meet her future husband. On the way she meets a beautiful minstrel with whom she falls in love and, of course, it turns out in the end that he is none other than the prince in disguise. These lines are sung by Lallah Rookh:
During its short life, the first of Rossetti’s two pet wombats secured a remarkable place in the mythology of his circle of friends. Rossetti gleefully reported to William Bell Scott on September 28, 1869 that the wombat had effectively interrupted a long and dreary monologue from John Ruskin by patiently burrowing between the eminent critic’s jacket and waistcoat. This must have been a marvellous thing to watch happen. Much later, James McNeill Whistler invented a silly story about how the wombat had perished after eating an entire box of cigars. Ford Madox Brown thought that Rossetti’s habit of bringing the wombat to dinner and letting it sleep in the large épergne or centrepiece on the dining room table inspired the dormouse in the tea-pot incident at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is in fact impossible because Lewis Carroll wrote that chapter in 1863, and the novel with its famous illustrations by John Tenniel was published two years later in 1865. There were also stories circulating about the wombat’s diet of ladies’ carelessly discarded straw hats, and so on.
In the short term, the Canadian woodchuck made up for Rossetti’s failure to preserve his two pet wombats. The woodchuck lasted much longer. For a long time it was mistaken for the wombat. On February 9, 1871, William Bell Scott observed the woodchuck nestling in Rossetti’s lap and made a charming pencil drawing on Cheyne Walk letterhead. He always assumed it was a wombat. I would say that it was, in fact, the woodchuck that slept peacefully in the épergne in the middle of the dining-room table, not the wombat.
Indeed it is the very idea of the wombat, not so much the creature himself, that consistently captured the imagination of visitors to Cheyne Walk, and stood out among the various Bohemian props with which Rossetti surrounded himself. The wombat craze of the 1850s and 1860s, while confined to a relatively small group of friends, represents a fascinating by-product of the British colonisation of Australia.
Australian birds and animals were very seldom noted in the London press. Palmer’s index to the Times newspaper lists only one reference each to a possum and an echidna in the whole extent of the nineteenth century, while kangaroos are likewise seldom mentioned — though the few mentions are so bizarre that they are worth repeating.
a strange animal lying at her back, with one of its paws laid over her shoulder. Screaming with affright, she left her bed, and seizing a towel, she beat it with all her might, when, with one bound, it sprang to the furthest corner of the room, and at length took refuge in another bed which stood in the same apartment.
The second reference comes sixteen years later, in October 1850, and likewise concerns a kangaroo escapee, this time from a menagerie that belonged to a newly-elected Member of Parliament, W. J. Evelyn, of Wotton, near Dorking in West Surrey. Raising the alarm, Evelyn called out the local hunt, replete with huntsmen, a pack of beagles, whippers-in and so forth. The kangaroo sought refuge in a place called the Duke of Norfolk’s Copse, but was flushed out and cornered at Abinger Rectory. The report is worth quoting:
Here the animal’s peculiar mode of progression was exhibited in a style which astonished the field—a singular succession of leaps carrying it over the ground at a rate perfectly startling. Those who were well mounted alone were enabled to go the pace, and they speedily found themselves at the top of Leith Hill, where the kangaroo took to the road, and for about a mile and a half they all dashed along, “the field” rapidly augmenting in numbers as they proceeded in their novel chase.
By contrast with these rare sightings of kangaroos, as a curiosity in Britain, the wombat, "the most beautiful of God’s creatures", seems to have attracted far more attention than any other Australian animal, and reached into the recesses of the imagination — at least among that group of artists who in the 1850s and 1860s clustered around Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Angus Trumble is a former Director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Previously he was Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, and, before that, Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide.