You never need an excuse to make a wombat the work of the week, but if we did, the anniversary of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s birth, this week in 1828, would be it.
Wombats are marsupials, native only to Australia, so they weren’t exactly common Victorian pets. A few were brought back live to Europe from the early 1800s – apparently Napoleon’s Josephine had one in her menagerie, and there were definitely wombats at the Regent’s Park (London) Zoo in the early 1860s. Interest might also have come from John Gould’s beautifully-illustrated book of The Mammals of Australia, published in the mid-1800s. The rotund wombat is particularly endearing.
In 1862, after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti had moved to 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. The house had a large garden that soon became a miniature zoo. Rossetti, fond of visiting the wombats at London Zoo, had two ‘pet’ wombats, buying one in 1869 from the wild animal supplier, Charles Jamrach. Rossetti also had kangaroos and wallabies, armadillos, a racoon, a Canadian woodchuck and a Japanese salamander, as well as larger animals like a zebu. He even discussed the purchase of an African elephant with Jamrach.
On receiving his own wombat, he wrote to his brother describing it as ‘a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness’. This celebrated wombat he named Top and sketched it led on a leash by Jane Morris, wife of William Morris. By all accounts, Morris was a cold husband and Jane had an intimate relationship with Rossetti which spanned decades. Perhaps it seems a little odd that he should place two objects of his affection together in this way – but odder still that they both wear halos.
However, Top was not long for this world, lasting only a couple of months, and dying despite a vet’s visit in November of 1869. When Top passed on, Rossetti drew a self portrait mourning the loss. He had Top stuffed and displayed him in the entrance to 16 Cheyne Walk.
Wombats are quite large animals, growing to about a metre in length, and Top himself seems quite large in both of Rossetti’s sketches. This drawing, done in 1871 by his friend William Bell Scott on 16 Cheyne Walk notepaper, clearly shows a small animal nestling in Rossetti’s lap – making it perhaps unlikely to be a remaining wombat. Angus Trumble, in his excellent lecture on the subject of the wombat in Victorian Britain and specifically for the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood suggests that this is in fact Rossetti’s Canadian woodchuck.
I’d love to hear from anyone who has more knowledge on either wombats or woodchucks to shed some more light on this charming beast.