The picture is dated 1874, eight years before Rossetti's death at the age of fifty-four, and at first sight it might seem a curious throwback to the Aestheticism he had explored so compellingly in the 1860s. However, since it was conceived in 1867, seven years before it was started and ten before it received the finishing touches, it would be more accurate to see it as a survivor from this phase of his development, firmly rooted in the past while the main thrust of his work had pursued a different course.
Certainly it adheres closely to the Aesthetic agenda. There is no narrative subject, or even that oppressive sense of mood that characterises many paintings of the 1870s. Essentially the picture is a sophisticated arrangement of forms and colours, in which the same model appears three times, wearing the same dress and only slightly different silver jewellery. It is hard to resist the parallel with music that was so central to the Aesthetic ideal and to which Walter Pater gave definitive expression at just about the time the picture was painted. What could be more 'musical' than the way the colour of the dresses is offset by the green foliage while finding echoes in the pink dog-roses that powder it? Or the complex interplay of the hands, twisting and turning like a melodic theme? Rossetti's friend Whistler might have called the picture a 'symphony' or 'harmony' in crimson and green. Another friend, A.C. Swinburne, might have said of it what he said of an Albert Moore: 'Its meaning is beauty and its reason for being is to be.'
The picture was executed mainly during Rossetti's second and longer stay at Kelmscott Manor. In May 1871 he and William Morris had taken a joint tenancy of the sleepy old Cotswold house not far from Lechlade on the upper Thames. Each saw it as a country retreat, but for Rossetti it offered opportunities to pursue his affair with Morris's wife Jane, the muse whose features and personality did so much to define his later work. He and his followers, Morris and Burne-Jones, had 'discovered' Jane, an ostler's daughter, when they were painting the famous murals in the Oxford Union in the autumn of 1857, and she had married Morris in April 1859. But it had never been a love match on her part, and by the mid-1860s, with Rossetti's wife, Lizzie Siddal, now dead, the stage was set for a renewal of the intimacy engendered when she had sat to him in Oxford.
They were together at Kelmscott from July to September 1871, while the architect Philip Webb carried out alterations to Rossetti's London house in Cheyne Walk. Rossetti then returned to London, where on 2 June 1872 a devastating crisis occurred. Robert Buchanan's attack on him in a scurrilous pamphlet, The Fleshly School of Poetry, acting on a constitution already weakened by insomnia, the chloral he took to relieve it and the frustration of his love for Jane, brought about a nervous collapse followed by a suicide attempt six days later. By 20 June he was on his way to Scotland where his patron William Graham had put a house at his disposal, but only Kelmscott offered the peace he craved. He returned there on 24 September and was to remain for the best part of the next two years. For much of this time he was accompanied by Jane and her two young daughters, Jenny and May; and it was May who inspired Rosa Triplex in its final form.
The sombre mood that Rossetti evoked in so many of his paintings of the 1870s was coloured on several levels by Jane Morris. If her brooding looks perfectly suited these conceptions, the fraught nature of their relationship lent them resonance and depth. One that particularly obsessed him, Proserpine, seems to offer a direct comment on their predicament, while the gloomiest of all, Astarte Syriaca, in which the goddess of love appears at her most baleful and threatening, was painted during a particularly depressing stay at Bognor in the winter of 1875-6. In fact it was this experience that finally convinced Jane that the affair must end. Rossetti's melancholia and the drastic remedy of chloral had long cast a heavy shadow over their liaison. After Bognor, she gently but firmly withdrew, although they remained on affectionate terms until his death six years later.
The chemistry that produced Rosa Triplex could hardly have been more different. Rossetti was not only a widower but childless, Lizzie Siddal's baby having been still-born. Yet one side of him yearned for children, and over the years he had grown close to the Morris girls, Jenny born in 1861 and May a year later. He had even seen them as surrogate daughters. 'I ought to have had a little girl older than she is,' he had remarked wistfully of Jenny in the late 1860s, and he would make a semi-serious attempt to adopt May.
A touching letter he sent to them in April 1868 suggests what an indulgent father he would have been. 'Here come two little dormice to live with you,' he wrote, 'I know you will take great care of them and always give them everything they are fond of - that is, nuts, apples and hard biscuits. If you love them very much I dare say they will get much bigger and fatter and remind you of Papa and me.'
But it was Kelmscott that unleashed the full flow of his feeling. The girls, he told his mother on 17 July 1871, were 'dear little things - perfectly natural and intelligent, and able to amuse themselves all day long without needing to be thought about by their elders.' As a preoccupied artist himself, he particularly prized this independence; the children were the 'most darling little self-amusing machines that ever existed,' he told another correspondent, William Bell Scott, the same day. And then there was their beauty, particularly that of May, aged nine when he arrived at Kelmscott. She was, he told Scott 'quite a beauty the more one knows her and will be a lovely woman. She is very clever too, I think, and has a real turn for drawing.' To his mother he observed that she was 'destined to be a great beauty beyond question.'
During his initial sojourn at Kelmscott, Rossetti made chalk drawings of the girls (fig. 1), attractive studies that reflect his response to their intelligence and beauty. And at some point during his second stay he evidently realised that May, now a year older and approaching puberty, was the model he needed to complete Rosa Triplex. The design had been evolved in 1867, when three drawings seem to have been made. The most developed, a study in red chalk (fig. 2), certainly bears this date, and since the other two, a pen-and-ink sketch (fig. 3) and another chalk drawing (Surtees 238B) are rougher and less finished, it would seem that they are earlier rather than later. The composition as seen in the Tate version is similar to that of the watercolour, although there are significant variations and the youthfulness and innocence of the watercolour are lacking. This has much to do with the use of different models. We do not know who posed for the two outer figures, but the girl in the middle is a likeness of Alexa Wilding, who not only embodied cool sophistication but in 1867 was fifteen years older than May Morris would be in 1874. Born in 1846 or 1847, she had met Rossetti in 1865 and begun to model for him the following year. The chalk version of Rosa Triplex, which Rossetti usually referred to as 'The Triple Rose' or even 'the 3 Roses',' represented one of her earliest appearances in his work, to which she was to contribute almost as much as Jane Morris in the 1870s.
The drawing was sold to William Graham in February 1868, and before it left his studio Rossetti had it photographed. He would occasionally send the resulting prints to friends; Barbara Bodichon and the novelist George Eliot both received them in February 1870. Meanwhile he cherished the idea of producing a watercolour version. The rough pen sketch (fig. 2) bears an inscription in which he reminds himself to 'paint large and make water colour.' An Aesthetic effect was also in view, although different from the one eventually adopted. The picture, the inscription continues, was to show the figures wearing 'black and red necklaces' and 'white frilled dressing gowns'.
By the autumn of 1871 Rossetti had even found a patron prepared to commission the picture. Frederick Craven, a Manchester calico printer, had bought from him consistently during the 1860s. Always short of money, Rossetti appreciated the fact that he was 'a very good paymaster and not a haggler at all.' At the same time he was well aware of his limitations, describing him caustically to Madox Brown as 'a grave and (let us say in a whisper) rather stupid enthusiast of the inarticulate business type, with a mystic reverence for the English watercolour school.' Craven did not only buy watercolours but most of his pictures were in this medium, whether by English artists of an older generation or the Pre-Raphaelites. His Rossettis were no exception, and it was entirely characteristic that he should commission a watercolour version of The Triple Rose.
Artist and patron were corresponding on the subject in November 1871 but the scheme then lapsed, no doubt due to the traumatic upheavals in Rossetti's life during the following year. Nor did he embark on the watercolour as soon as he returned to Kelmscott in September 1872, although it did not take him long to think of using May again as a model. By October he had conceived the startling idea of repainting the head in his picture Lady Lilith from her; she may, as he put it, have had 'the right complexion', but to use such a young model for an image of carnal sensuality was bizarre. Wisdom eventually prevailed and Alex Wilding assumed the Lillith role, but about the same time May was sitting for a picture called Heart's Ease and another chalk drawing. Rossetti had lost none of his admiration for her looks. She was, he told Charles Augustus Howell when announcing the completion of Heart's Ease, 'the most lovely girl in the world.'
In fact it was not until the end of 1873 that Rossetti began gathering reference material with a view to embarking on Craven's watercolour. On the last day of the year he wrote to his assistant H.T. Dunn, asking him to send one of the photographs of Graham's drawing, together with 'the cartoon and drawing of Triple Rose'. It has been suggested that the cartoon was the second chalk drawing made in 1867 (Surtees 238B), although this cannot be proved. Still more puzzling is Rossetti's reference to a 'watercolour' by Dunn from which he 'traced' his picture in February 1874. Here a possible candidate is a chalk drawing of doubtful authorship in the Birmingham Art Gallery (no. 40'12), although this would mean that the word 'watercolour' was a slip of the pen. Whatever the case, by 19 February the new picture was well under way and he had 'painted the three heads straight off from little May successfully.' He had, he told Dunn, been greatly inconvenienced by finding that he did not have any of the Whatman's white imperial paper he usually used for watercolours. Fortunately he discovered 'just one of those stained chalk papers which was white,' and used this instead.
The development of the design from chalk drawing to finished watercolour involved many changes. Not only was a different model used and, due to her youthfulness, a new sense of innocence evoked. By using one model rather than two (i.e. Alexa Wilding and the unknown girl who sat for the other two figures in the drawing), Rossetti gives the watercolour a homogeneity which is lacking in the drawn version.
Then there is the way May is dressed. Gone is the generalised garb worn by the girls in the drawing, apparel that could well have been created 'out of the artist's head', to be replaced by what Rossetti called a 'crimsony red silk dress' from the large stock of models' costumes he had in his studio. Nothing could be further from the 'white dressing gowns' he had once envisaged, while the silver jewellery had also come far from the 'black and red necklaces' noted on the early sketch (fig. 3). Here again he could draw on a large collection among his studio props, eclectic in terms of ethnic origin but universally picturesque.
No picture, in fact, illustrates this better than Rosa Triplex. The necklace worn by the central figure, consisting of filigree comma -shapes hanging from a panzer chain, probably came from the Ottoman region, being of a type worn from the Balkans to the Southern Caucasus, including Syria. The central heart-shaped pendant may, however, be of Rossetti's own invention. The girl on the left wears an Ottoman style filigree bracelet, with a distinctive rectangular clasp peculiar to the North Balkans, while her necklace is of a similar form and possibly origin. As for the adornments of the girl on the right, it is generally agreed that her seven-string necklace is Indian in origin. Her bracelet is formed from a large hooped earring worn in several areas of North Africa, and a pendant is attached with stylised Arabian 'hands of Fatima'. Such exotic jewellery had been popularized in England by extensive displays at the 1851 and 1862 exhibitions, followed by further annual shows at South Kensington in the 1870s. What is now the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired 1,100 pieces in 1872, and examples were available at Liberty's (opened in 1875) and other retail outlets. Or perhaps Rossetti had picked his up at one of the antique and bric-á-brac shops he haunted so zealously.
Jewellery is conspicuous by its absence in the Graham drawing, and its introduction in the watercolour ensures a more complex and intricate composition. A similar role is performed by the roses which break up the uniformly dark background in the drawing. But the greatest compositional refinement is the repositioning of the right hand of the left-hand figure. In the drawing it lies inertly on the parapet, having nothing to do and lacking any expressive purpose. By raising it to fondle the sitter's necklace, Rossetti not only gives it an aim but greatly enhances the interplay of hands so vital in the picture's decorative impact.
Rossetti left Kelmscott hurriedly in mid-July 1874 after an embarrassing quarrel with some local anglers. He was still working on Rosa Triplex, but when his neighbour G.P. Boyce, hearing he was back in town, called on him on 25 July, he found him 'finishing this 'beautiful drawing.' On 13 August Rossetti acknowledged receipt of a cheque for £196 - 5 shillings from Craven, 'concluding payment for ''The Triple Rose'',' and the following December, writing to his friend Thomas Hake, he referred to the picture as 'completed'. Yet it evidently still lacked the dog-roses in the background. These were added in the autumn of 1877 when Rossetti was staying at Hunter's Forestall, near Margate, in yet another melancholy attempt to conquer his addiction to chloral.
Craven had parted with Rosa Triplex by 1883, when its next owner, C.W. Mills, lent it to the Rossetti memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy. By 1897, when another Rossetti exhibition took place at the New Gallery, it belonged to W. Graham Robertson, a wealthy young man with a passionate interest in art and the stage, probably best known to posterity for forming an unrivalled collection of the work of William Blake. Although Robertson knew many of Rossetti's circle, notably Burne-Jones, he never met the great man himself. He was, however, devoted, to his art and memory, also owning the primary version of Proserpine (Tate Britain) and writing about him with great perception in a chapter entitled 'The Spell of Rossetti' in his reminiscences, Time Was (1931). Robertson died in 1948, and the following year Rosa Triplex appeared at his sale in these Rooms, where it was bought by the Leger Galleries from which Virginia Surtees acquired it two years later. The picture has therefore only had four owners, three of them with credentials second to none as Rossetti enthusiasts and keen collectors of his work. No better provenance could be desired or imagined.
We are grateful to Nick Barnard, Curator, South Asian jewellery, Victorian and Albert Museum, and Jane Perry, visiting scholar at the Victoria and Albert Museum and author of Traditional Jewellery in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2013), for their help in identifying the jewellery worn in the picture.