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.
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.’
How did Rossetti and his protégés come to be so obsessed with wombats?
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”.
Gould’s 1855 description of the wombat is almost as captivating as Everard Home’s fifty years earlier.
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.
If not from Thomas Woolner, whose view of the Australian landscape was pretty bleak, Rossetti and his friends may well have derived their particular enthusiasm for wombats from Gould’s or some other appealing description. Or maybe they simply fell in love with the wombats at the Regent’s Park Zoo.
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”.
Still shaky, Rossetti could not wait to get back to Chelsea from freezing Scotland. He wrote to Jane the following mock-heroic lines:
Oh! How the family affections combat Within this heart; and each hour flings a bomb at My burning soul; neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained, until I clasp my wombat!