Friday, May 1, 2009

Rossetti's menagerie

Who knew - I sure didn't - that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was fond of exotic animals?! I learned during my research for yesterday's post that he had a menagerie at his home and garden in Chelsea, London, that included (at one time or another) armadillos, salamaders, raccoons, dormice, parrots, owls, woodchucks, marmots, kangaroos, wallabies, jackasses, deer, and a zebu. He famously annoyed his neighbours so much with one set of additions that his landlord added a clause into all future tenant contracts that 'No peacocks are allowed'. But his most prized pets were wombats, of which he imported two. Unfortunately, neither lived very long. "Top" - who was allowed to sleep in the centerpiece of the table during dinner - was commemorated in the above drawing and poem:
I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he was most sweet and fat
And tail-less he was sure to die!
Wombats had captured the attention of English naturalists from the turn of the 19th c., and fascinated the Pre-Raphaelites, one of whom had visited Australia. Rossetti had been captivated by them for 12 years before before owning one and had often arranged to meet friends at the "Wombat's Lair" at the Regent's Park Zoo, where he spent many hours. He was away in Scotland when his first wombat arrived, but sent home the following verse:
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!
The day after he arrived home and met the marsupial, he confirmed in a letter to a friend, "The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness." Though Top lived with him for only 2 months, Rossetti had his remains prepared by a taxidermist so that the animal could be displayed in his front hall.

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