- Museum number
Writing on the sand, portraits of Sir Richard Rivington Holmes and Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (?); couple on beach, with his walking-stick the man is sketching the woman's head in the sand, beyond the sea to left, bordered to right by a curving sweep of sand, backed by low cliffs, in distance group of figures on shore. 1858-9
Watercolour, begun on a smaller piece of paper, stuck onto a larger piece to enlarge the composition on the left, bottom and right
- Production date
Height: 263 millimetres
Width: 241 millimetres
- Curator's comments
Text from J.A.Gere, 'Pre-Raphaelite Drawings in the BM' 1994, cat.20:
'Writing on the Sand' is unique in Rossetti's work in treating a contemporary subject in light-hearted vein. The subject is a 'modern' one, but not in the spirit of 'Found' and 'The Gate of Memory' (see 1910,1210.1). Marillier, writing in the 1890s, found a drawing of "men with Dundreary whiskers and women in hoops and Garibaldis quaint enough to be described as humorous". He excluded it from the list of Rossetti's works at the end of his book, relegating it to a supplementary chapter on 'Early Drawings and Caricatures'. The features of the lady are unmistakeably those of Elizabeth Siddal, and Marillier states that the model for the man was (Sir) Richard Holmes (1835-1911), later Librarian at Windsor Castle.
In the very early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Rossetti was persuaded to paint a landscape according to strict Pre-Raphaelite principles of "truthfulness to nature" to be used as background for some future picture, but the experiment proved uncongenial and was not repeated. For the landscape setting of 'Writing on the Sand' he took a short cut. His friend the landscape watercolourist George Pryce Boyce (see Gere 1978 p. 78) recorded in his journal on 21 June 1858, "Rossetti called and borrowed 2 sketches of mine on the coast of Babbacombe [near Torquay in S. Devon] as a help to background of a delicate little drawing of a loving couple on a sea beach on a windy day he is doing for Miss Herbert (rightly Mrs Crabbe) and would have me come down in a hansom to see the same". For Miss Herbert see 1910,1013.25.
Reproduced in H C Marillier's 'Rossetti', London, 1899, p. 219.
See also Surtees 111, and Tate Gallery, Pre-Raphaelite exh. 1984, no. 226 (col. repr.). This watercolour was apparently painted for the actress Ruth Herbert.
Lit: Cosmo Monkhouse, 'Drawings at the British Museum', Illustrated London News, 7 March 1891, pp.301-2 (302).
Rossetti's forte was inventive design: as Madox Brown noted in his diary in 1854, "I see Nature bothers him". At the outset of their friendship Ruskin hoped that Rossetti could be persuaded to take a serious interest in landscape, and offered to send him on a sketching tour to Wales. Characteristically, Rossetti's response was that he would take the money to go to Paris but would not paint landscapes in Wales. The present watercolour is perhaps the nearest that he ever came to painting a landscape, but it is significant that the background was in fact based on two sketches by G. P. Boyce of Babbacombe on the Devonshire coast which Rossetti borrowed in June 1858.
A pen drawing of the same subject shows Elizabeth Siddal as the girl and the features of the figure in the watercolour closely resemble hers. The model for the man is traditionally said to have been Richard Holmes, later Librarian at Windsor Castle.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1891 Feb-Mar, BM, 'Exhibition of Drawings and Sketches'
1973/4 Nov-Feb Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, 'Präraffaeliten', no.124
1984 Feb-May, London, Tate Gallery, 'The Pre-Raphaelites', no.226 (repro.)
1985 BM, British Landscape Watercolours 1600-1860, no.191
1994/5 Sep-Jan, BM, Pre-Raphaelite Drawings, no.20
2003/4 Oct-Jan, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti'
2004 Feb-June, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti'
2010/2011 Oct-Jan, Washington, NGA, The Pre-Raphaelite Lens
2011 Mar-May, Paris, Musée d'Orsay, The Pre-Raphaelite Lens
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Gere 1994
Sale, Christie's, 25 May 1886, lot 120 (presumably Ruth Herbert's property: see S 335);
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number