Tuesday, February 19, 2008
In Admiration of the Assistants
Just finished reading another excellent book on the Pre-Raphaelites, and while reading this one, I was struck by how many 'unsung talents' there were among the assistants to the famous names. These assistants would be charged with finding props and fabrics and costumes needed for shoots, sometimes very specific. I laughed to myself as I read a note from Rossetti to his assistant, Harry Treffry Dunn:
There is another thing I want -- to wit, a dragonfly or two to paint in my picture, you know they are quite blue and I want one with his wings spread upwards as they do when they fly or sometimes when they stand. You might, if possible, get me 2 or 3 set up in different positions. I am wanting them as soon as possible. Also, you might get me a few blue or blue-grey butterflies. These also to be set up in action flying or resting.
I read this message from Rossetti, and I was amusedly reminded of the movie The Devil Wears Prada, when the nightmarish boss charges Anne Hathaway's character to get her children a Harry Potter book that hasn't been published. I sympathize with what I'm sure were some of the eccentric requests plied to these poor assistants by their artistically-minded bosses. I can imagine the frantic assistants wondering where in London they will find blue dragonflies, one with wings extended, one at rest, or any number of other strange objects.
Beyond that, many of these assistants duplicated works by their masters with impressive skill. Done in the style they were taught, they could be dismissed as poor copies of a rich genius, but they took great technical skill to accomplish. The above drawing was done by Dunn, clearly in the style of Rossetti, but with great talent in and of itself.
Other assistants included Thomas Matthews Rooke, assistant to Burne-Jones:
Charles Fairfax Murray, also assistant to Burne-Jones, who interestingly enough, apparently did this replica version of Beata Beatrice that I've always seen attributed to Rossetti himself:
and John Melhuish Struckwick, also an assistant to Burne-Jones. Ned knew how to pick talent!
Imagine...having no recognition for the work you create, and also having to cater to the strange whims of your employer. I have no doubt that at least some of the Pre-Raphaelites who employed assistants treated them with respect. However, by its very nature it was a difficult position, oftentimes held by very talented individuals who only recently have begun receiving any recognition at all for their work. So here's to the assistants!