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Overlooked Britain: The lost tail of a sweet, fat wombat - Lucinda Lambton

Blog | By Lucinda Lambton | Nov 13, 2023

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, left, with sister Christina, brother William and their mother, photographed by Lewis Carroll. Carroll is said to have been inspired by a sleeping wombat to place the Dormouse in a teapot in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Here is a delightful discovery. The famed artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) kept, of all creatures, a wombat as a pet, which he loved with all his heart and soul. He wrote, with considerable feeling:

So lamented the great man, to go with a drawing (now held by the British museum) commemorating the death of his pet Top, his little marsupial pal, who died in 1869.

After his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died in 1862 of a laudanum overdose, Rossetti moved to 16 Cheyne Walk, where he was to live for the rest of his life, keeping company with a menagerie of creatures great and small.

He had almost an acre of overgrown garden, which was allowed to get ever more so by the day. It was here that the animals all roamed together. There were owls, two kangaroos (the mother was killed by her son) and wombats (one had its tail stamped off by a deer). He had green lizards, too, as well as dormice, hedgehogs and a mole.

His Brahmin bull – whose eyes he likened to the eyes of William Morris’s wife, Jane – caused many a rumpus. It chased Rossetti at speed through the house and out into the garden.

At one point. Rossetti conceived of an excellent plan to buy an elephant to clean the windows. He said that the passing public was sure to be interested, stop and ask who lived there, and then be enticed to buy his pictures.

Wombats, though, were always his favourite animals; he would often spend hours alone with them at what he called the ‘Wombat’s Lair’ in London Zoo. When the first one – he was eventually to have two – arrived in Cheyne Walk, he was whipped into a pitch of anticipatory excitement, penning a laudatory poem:

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!

He wrote in ecstasy to his brother, William, that the wombat was ‘a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness’.

In an earlier letter, he gave us a tantalising glimpse of architecture for animals, praising ‘a shrine in the Italian taste for the wombat’, which he thanks his sister Christina for rearing. She too had been enraptured by the creatures, calling them ‘agil, giocondo’ (nimble, cheerful) as well as ‘irsuto e tondo’ (hairy and round).

The creature slept a good deal, either in the bowls of the hanging lamps or in the epergne on the dining-room table. The painter James McNeill Whistler wrote of having dinner with Rossetti in Cheyne Walk with the novelist George Meredith and the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The somnolent wombat curled up in the epergne throughout the evening.

Ford Madox Brown claimed the sight of the sleeping wombat inspired Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) to write of the Dormouse in the teapot in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Rossetti often took his friends to see the two wombats that lived at the zoo. He wrote, they ‘not only admit to closest inspection but may be handled and scratched by all those who chose to make so intimate an acquaintance with them’.

There were many stories. John Ruskin’s dignity was somewhat disordered during a lengthy monologue by one of the wombats persistently and patiently burrowing between his jacket and waistcoat. Then when a solicitor’s wife called Mrs Virtue Tebbs came to be painted, she was less charmed by the creature when it ate her straw hat.

‘Oh, poor Wombat,’ wailed Rossetti. ‘It is so indigestible!’

Lamentably, this wombat died within two months. Seeing that he spent so much time in the dining room, Whistler wrote a satire on his demise – that, when munching his way through a box of cigars, the lid closed, the wombat perished inside, and Rossetti later found it in the empty box.

The great artist applied himself forthwith. He drew a mournful scene, with Rossetti kneeling over his little dead pal by a handsome memorial,carved with an angel and topped by an urn.

Sadly, this was never to materialise, as the creature was stuffed and put on display in the front hall at Cheyne Walk.

A second wombat was soon on its way. The artist Val Prinsep summed up life in Cheyne Walk: ‘Rossetti was the planet round 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.’

Above: Rossetti’s sketches of a wombat. Right: Whistler’s drawing of Rossetti mourning his wombat