We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  William Michael Rossetti (1829–1919), by Ford Madox Brown, 1856 [William Michael Rossetti by Gaslight] William Michael Rossetti (1829–1919), by Ford Madox Brown, 1856 [William Michael Rossetti by Gaslight]
Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1919), art critic and literary editor, was born on 25 September 1829 at 38 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London, third of four children of Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti (1783–1854), professor of Italian and Dante scholar, and his wife, Frances Mary Lavinia (1800–1886), daughter of Gaetano Polidori and his wife, Anna Pierce. An ‘audaciously lazy’ schoolboy (Some Reminiscences, 1.27), he attended King's College School, London, in 1837–45, with his brother . Essentially self-taught, his real education took place within the family circle of scholastic parents and intellectual siblings—, Dante Gabriel (1828–1882), and . Shared reading, drawing, and creative writing, especially bouts-rimés sonnets written to time (seven minutes, for example) and to set rhyme schemes, provided cultural nourishment, the basis of a lifetime's interests.

School ended abruptly in February 1845 when, at a starting salary of £80 per annum, Rossetti entered the Excise Office (later the Inland Revenue Board) to alleviate the family's ‘genteel poverty’ (Some Reminiscences, 1.45). He remained a civil servant until retirement in September 1894, reaching senior assistant secretary grade by 1869. From 1888 to 1905, he travelled all over the country for the board, assessing art works for estate duty.

Of all the rich friendships in a long lifetime, Rossetti's earliest, with his brilliant painter–poet brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was perhaps the closest and most dynamic. When Dante Gabriel enrolled him as the seventh Pre-Raphaelite brother in 1848, William tried to educate himself artistically at life classes and attended Ruskin's drawing classes at the Working Men's College. Some of his careful, graceful artwork survives, for example studies of the young Millais of c.1849 and 1853, Gabriele Rossetti of 1852, Frances Rossetti of 1853, and two portraits of Christina, drawn in 1853 and 1855 (all priv. colls.). Secretary to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, between 1849 and 1853 Rossetti kept a record of their proceedings, known as the P.R.B. Journal. It is almost the only insider evidence of the short-lived brotherhood and its magazine, The Germ (four issues, 1850). Rossetti managed and edited The Germ, and wrote its cover sonnet, so tortuous that William Bell Scott complained ‘it would almost need a Browning Society's united intellects’ to unravel its meaning (Scott, 1.324–5) but Arthur Hughes found it inspiring. For The Germ Rossetti wrote perceptive reviews of A. H. Clough's Bothie, M. Arnold's Strayed Reveller and R. Browning's Christmas Eve and Easter Day. His long poem on Pre-Raphaelite principles, Mrs. Holmes Grey, written at the time, was eventually published two decades later (Broadway Annual, 1868, 449–54).

In The Critic (1850–56) and The Spectator (1850–58) Rossetti promoted the work and ideas of the new, iconoclastic Pre-Raphaelite artists, mainly William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and D. G. Rossetti. He was also an organizer, acting as secretary to the exhibition of British art shown in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston in 1857–8. From 1850 to 1878 he wrote nearly 400 art ‘critiques’, admired by contemporaries such as John Ruskin and George Du Maurier, for English and American periodicals including The Academy, the Saturday Review, and the New York based Crayon. He selected his best reviews for his Fine Art, Chiefly Contemporary (1867) and wrote Royal Academy Notes jointly with A. C. Swinburne in 1868. Swinburne, a friend for nearly fifty years, dedicated his essay on Blake (1868) to Rossetti to mark their shared enthusiasm for the then unfashionable visionary poet. Rossetti and his brother helped Anne Gilchrist edit her husband's Life of William Blake (1863) and William supplied its annotated lists of Blake's paintings and drawings. He significantly supplemented Gilchrist's Life when he edited Blake, with a Memoir (1874) for the Aldine Poets series.

There is a contradiction at the heart of Rossetti. Contemporaries and posterity have perceived him as dull and pedestrian; in fact his tastes in art and literature, his position on religion and politics were all radical. His literary criticism as well as his art reviews were avant-garde. He persuasively defended Swinburne's Poems and Ballads against mid-Victorian prudery in his pamphlet A Criticism (1866), and was one of the first to recognize the ‘entire originality’ of Walt Whitman (The Chronicle, 1, 6 July 1867, 352–4). In deference to ‘a nervous age’, he felt compelled to exclude ‘decidedly offensive’ works from his edition of Poems by Walt Whitman, published in 1868, which nevertheless gave Whitman his first British readership (Selected Letters, 177–8). Rossetti's literary hero was another radical libertarian, Shelley. He edited Shelley, with a Memoir (2 vols., 1870), which he revised (3 vols., 1878) in response to criticism of the first edition. Between 1878 and 1895 he wrote about sixty articles for The Athenaeum, mostly on Shelley and Italian literature. He lectured on Shelley and was a chairman of the Shelley Society, founded in 1886, until its dissolution in 1895. Although he wrote a life of Keats (1887) for the Great Writers series, he frankly preferred Shelley.

Embracing the best of the new, Rossetti reluctantly testified against his old friend Ruskin and on behalf of J. A. M. Whistler in the celebrated libel case of 1878. Rossetti's position on art had moved from promoting the moral content of Pre-Raphaelitism to appreciating the new aesthetic, art for art's sake. He responded not only to Whistler's innovatory art but also to his orientalism. A connoisseur and collector of Eastern art, Rossetti recognized artists such as Hokusai well ahead of general taste.

Rossetti edited twenty-one volumes for Edward Moxon's series Popular Poets (1870–73), then, with an echo of Dr Johnson, reprinted his own introductions as Lives of some Famous Poets (1878). He contributed over fifty short critical biographies on (mostly Italian) artists from Canaletto to Tintoretto to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (9th edn, 1875–89).

Admiration for Shelley and Whitman underpinned Rossetti's politics. Always ‘a democratic republican’ (Selected Letters, 186) and socialist, Rossetti loathed war and jingoism. Anti-slavery in the American Civil War, he was often ‘singular and solitary in a roomful of company’ (‘English opinion on the American war’, Atlantic Monthly, 17 Feb 1866, 129–30) for his liberal minority views which he consistently upheld on issues including Irish home rule, the Crimean War, Italian unification, the Paris commune, imperialism, republicanism, and women's suffrage. In 1881 he wrote Democratic Sonnets, but Dante Gabriel felt they were too revolutionary for William's civil service employers and stopped him publishing. Only in retirement could the Sonnets appear (2 vols., 1907). As a Victorian corollary to his left-wing politics, Rossetti kept faith with his unbelief. An agnostic before the word was invented—by T. H. Huxley in 1869—he told Swinburne he could not ‘affirm atheism’ (Selected Letters, 235). Although sceptical about life after death, he kept a séance diary in 1865.

Rossetti's outlook was international. Three-quarters Italian by birth, he felt that Italy was ‘my native country almost in equal degree with England’ (Selected Letters, 669). He travelled often to Italy, fell in love with his future wife there in 1873, and returned on honeymoon. He translated the prose arguments of Dante Gabriel's version of Dante's Vita nuova (1861) and published his own blank verse translation of Dante's Inferno as The Hell (1865). He gave the Taylorian lecture on Leopardi at Oxford in 1891 (published 1900), was a jury member at the first Venice Biennale in 1895, and produced a study entitled Dante and his Convito (1910). Although not university educated, by 1882 Rossetti's reputation for scholarship brought an invitation to examine Italian at the Taylor Institution at Oxford. He annotated The Stacyons of Rome (1866) and produced Early Italian Courtesy-Books (1869) for the Early English Text Society, later comparing Chaucer's Troylus and Cryseyde with Boccaccio's Filostrato (2 parts, 1873–83) for the Chaucer Society. He was among the earliest contributors of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary.

After the deaths of Dante Gabriel (1882) and Christina Rossetti (1894) William found fulfilment memorializing both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and his family history. He published successive editions of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's collected works (1886, 1891, 1904, and 1911), Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer (1889), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti: his Family Letters with a Memoir (2 vols., 1895). Although he called himself a brother ‘of very minor pretensions’ (Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1.423), he judged this ‘certainly the most considerable performance of my lifetime’ (manuscript diary, 10 April 1895, Angeli-Dennis Collection, University of British Columbia). For Christina he edited New Poems (1896), Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti with a Memoir (1904), and Family Letters (1908). He translated his father's Versified Autobiography (1901) into English blank verse. He observed a double loyalty, to his famous family and to the truth. Often accused of obfuscation, he asserted his moral rights to reticence: ‘I have told what I choose to tell, and have left untold what I do not choose to tell’ (Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1.xii).

At last Rossetti turned to his own life in Some Reminiscences (2 vols., 1906), an appealing collage of memoir, biography, autobiography, poetry, reviews, letters, anecdotes, opinion, and art history. He included a truthful account of his twenty-year marriage to the artist (Emma) Lucy Madox Brown (1843–1894) [see ], daughter of Ford Madox Brown, although he omitted his previous engagement to Henrietta Rintoul. The marriage, which took place on 31 March 1874 at St Pancras register office, brought him five children—Olivia (b. 1875), Arthur (b. 1877), Helen (b. 1879), and twins Mary and Michael (b. 1881)—and early years of happiness. Lucy's consumption brought distress, changed her personality, and soured relations, although he remained constantly loyal. A character of rare integrity, Rossetti's self-control concealed complex emotions, evidenced when he almost broke down during his brother's mental collapse of 1872. To face family deaths and crises, he armed himself with stoicism but playfully encouraged Lucy and the children to call him Fofus meaning ‘funny, fussy old fogey’ (Selected Letters, 485). Affectionate and generous both with money and time, he supported his extended family all his life, arranged subscriptions for needy friends including Whitman, subsidized the Siddal brothers (of Dante Gabriel's wife Lizzie) until they died, and always encouraged younger writers. He kept detailed diaries, wrote thousands of letters, and, in old age, catalogued his massive Pre-Raphaelite holdings into publications and bound miscellanies (priv. colls. and University of Minnesota Library).

With brooding Italianate good looks, in youth William Michael Rossetti often modelled for Pre-Raphaelite pictures—as Colonna in Hunt's Rienzi, Lorenzo in Millais's Isabella, the angel in D. G. Rossetti's Ecce ancilla domini!—but he was embarrassed by early baldness which he covered with caps, berets, and even a fez. He always studied his clothes, so even when elderly, he looked distinguished. Arthur Hughes noticed in 1894, ‘he looked so beautiful I thought, his crisp white beard so neatly clipped and a beautiful sort of loose black overcoat … so refined and really beautiful with a refining I could not help feeling came from many sorrows’ (Fredeman, A Pre-Raphaelite Gazette, 55). Portraits by D. G. Rossetti, F. M. Brown, A. Hughes, J. E. Millais, W. B. Scott, A. Legros, and H. Gilchrist survive, as do photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll. Outliving the Pre-Raphaelites and all his family, apart from his children, the ‘remarkably harmonious’ Rossetti (L'Enfant, 2) died of old age at home, 3 St Edmund's Terrace, Regent's Park, London, on 5 February 1919. His ashes were interred three days later in the Rossetti family grave at Highgate cemetery.

Rossetti has attracted adverse criticism. His literary enemies range over a century, from William Morris to Craig Raine, but William Rothenstein maintained ‘he was an admirable critic of literature and art; he kept his faith in the power of art bright and clean; and his outlook on life was broad and humane’ (Rothenstein, 1.230). W. E. Fredeman considered he was ‘the catalytic agent of the P. R. B.’ (Fredeman, The P.R.B. Journal, xxv) and that commentators owe him a huge debt for constructing the basis of later Pre-Raphaelite scholarship.

Angela Thirlwell


A. Thirlwell, William and Lucy: the other Rossettis (2003) · W. M. Rossetti, Some reminiscences, 2 vols. (1906) · W. M. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: his family letters with a memoir, 2 vols. (1895) · W. M. Rossetti, ed., Ruskin: Rossetti: Pre-Raphaelitism, papers 1854 to 1862 (1899) · W. M. Rossetti, ed., Praeraphaelite diaries and letters (1900) · Gabriele Rossetti: a versified autobiography, ed. and trans. W. M. Rossetti (1901) · W. M. Rossetti, ed., Rossetti papers 1862 to 1870 (1903) · University of British Columbia, Angeli-Dennis collection [incl. W. M. Rossetti's MS diary] · Selected letters of William Michael Rossetti, ed. R. W. Peattie (1990) · R. W. Peattie, ‘William Michael Rossetti as critic and editor, together with a consideration of his life and character’, PhD diss., UCL, 1966 · R. W. Peattie, ‘William Michael Rossetti's art notices: an annotated checklist’, Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, 8 (June 1975), 79–92 · The diary of W. M. Rossetti, 1870–1873, ed. O. Bornand (1977) · O. R. Agresti, ‘The anecdotage of an interpreter’, autobiography, 1957, Col. U. · W. B. Scott, Autobiographical notes, ed. W. Minto, 2 vols. (1892) · W. E. Fredeman, Pre-Raphaelitism: a bibliocritical study (1965) · W. E. Fredeman, A Pre-Raphaelite gazette: the Penkill letters of Arthur Hughes to William Bell Scott and Alice Boyd, 1886–97 (1967) · W. E. Fredeman, Prelude to the last decade: Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the summer of 1872 (1971) · W. E. Fredeman, ed., The P.R.B. Journal (1975) · J. L'Enfant, William Rossetti's art criticism (1999) · W. Rothenstein, Men and memories, 1 (1931) · S. Weintraub, Four Rossettis (1977) · S. Weintraub, ‘His brother's keeper: William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, Blood brothers, ed. N. Kiell (1983), 227–75 · J. Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1999) · F. Miles, ‘Rossetti's schooldays’, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 2/2 (May 1982) · The Chronicle, 1 (6 July 1867) · The Pre-Raphaelites and their world: a personal view from ‘Some reminiscences’ and other writings of William Michael Rossetti (1995), introduction and epilogue by A. Thirlwell · ‘English opinion on the American war’, Atlantic Monthly (17 Feb 1866), 129–30 · The Times (6 Feb 1919) · Westminster Gazette (6 Feb 1919) · The Guardian (7 Feb 1919) · Daily Telegraph (7 Feb 1919) · DNB · J. Thale, ‘The third Rossetti’, Western Humanities Review, 10 (summer 1956)


Arizona State University, letters · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers, incl. Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood journal · Boston PL, letters · Duke U., Perkins L., corresp. · Hunt. L., letters · Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, corresp. · Pforzheimer Library, New York, papers · Princeton University Library, New Jersey, literary papers and letters · Ransom HRC, papers · V&A, notes |  BL, corresp. with James Dykes Campbell, Add. MS 49525, passim · BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52750 · BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 54976 · BL, letters to Walter Watts-Dunton, Add. MS 70627 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to F. G. Stephens · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with James Thomson · FM Cam., letters to Georgina Burne-Jones · JRL, letters to William Colles · JRL, letters to Marion Spielmann · JRL, letters to Anna Steele · NYPL, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Algernon Charles Swinburne · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to J. L. Tupper and family · U. Lpool, corresp. with John Sampson · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to Sir Walter Trevelyan and Lady Trevelyan · U. Reading, letters to John Todhunter · University of British Columbia, Angeli-Dennis collection, W. M. Rossetti's MS diary, letters to Thomas Hall Caine · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to Frederick Locker


J. E. Millais, pen-and-ink drawing, 1852, priv. coll. · D. G. Rossetti, pencil and wash drawing, 1853, NPG · A. Hughes, pen-and-ink drawing, 1854, priv. coll. · F. M. Brown, oils, 1856, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton [see illus.] · L. Carroll [C. L. Dodgson], group photograph, 1863 (The Rossetti family), NPG · J. M. Cameron, photograph, c.1866, NPG · J. L. Tupper, plaster portrait medallion, c.1869, priv. coll. · H. H. Gilchrist, oils, 1902, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton · Russell and Sons, photograph, c.1907, NPG · W. Rothenstein, oils, 1909, NPG · J. Haswall, photograph, 1910, priv. coll. · M. Beerbohm, caricature, 1916, Tate collection · A. Legros, oils, repro. in Rossetti, Some reminiscences, frontispiece; priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£26,580 3s.: probate, 8 April 1919, CGPLA Eng. & Wales