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!

6 comments:

Kimber An said...

Beautiful blog! I love it. I find art sooo inspirational in my creative endeavors.
:o)

Grace said...

Thank you for your compliments! I'm greatly enjoying creating this blog too :)

medievalmuse said...

I giggled at the dragonfly/butterfly request. Can you imagine the passion and perfectionism that some of the PRB no doubt possessed? Probably bordering on madness at times.

Aurora said...

This is probably my favorite, of all your posts...mostly because, as a photographer, I can TOTALLY appreciate how invaluable having a good assistant would be...and I have NO problem imagining requests like those! My co-workers are used to me coming out with things out of the blue, like, "I don't suppose you have a granite mortar and pestle, do you?" or "What I really need is some robin's eggs. Three. And an armillary. Although I could get by with an astrolae, an ornate compass, and a large, blooming paphiopedlium."

(And I WOULD like a quantity of dragonflies, actually! I have butterflies and moths of all shapes and sizes from all over the world, and several eupholus beetles (weevils)--but no dragonflies!)

Usually, I do without...but sometimes someone I know surprises me, and has something I can borrow. :)

Anyway--GREAT article! I had never realized the artists had assistants who did all that for them--I figured they painted from their imagination...or went to a museum or something.

Grace said...

Isn't it amazing all the work those assistants do? I had another book (the one on Pre-Raphaelite Jewelry) that also quoted another message from Rossetti to his assistant asking for specific pieces of jewelry.

As a "typical woman" though, I can't pity them too much for having to go out shopping ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi,
I am looking for a pre-raphaelite print featuring two girls with long dark brown hair, fair skinned in long white dresses playing violins (or the medieval version of a violin).
I have searched google images and it won't come up. It looks like a John Waterhouse painting in appearance, but couldn't find it on his painting list.
It's not an uncommon print, but I guess if you have the name of it and the artist I would be very appreciative so I can order it to add to my collection
carolyn_briggs@hotmail.com
Thank you :o)