William Bell Scott, 'Rossetti's Wombat Seated in his Master's Lap' 1871

William Bell Scott
Rossetti's Wombat Seated in his Master's Lap 1871
Pencil on paper
support: 178 x 111 mm
Bequeathed by H.F. Stephens 1932

You never need an excuse to make a wombat the work of the week, but if we did, the anniversary of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s birth, this week in 1828, would be it.

Wombats are marsupials, native only to Australia, so they weren’t exactly common Victorian pets. A few were brought back live to Europe from the early 1800s – apparently Napoleon’s Josephine had one in her menagerie, and there were definitely wombats at the Regent’s Park (London) Zoo in the early 1860s. Interest might also have come from John Gould’s beautifully-illustrated book of The Mammals of Australia, published in the mid-1800s. The rotund wombat is particularly endearing.

In 1862, after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti had moved to 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. The house had a large garden that soon became a miniature zoo. Rossetti, fond of visiting the wombats at London Zoo, had two ‘pet’ wombats, buying one in 1869 from the wild animal supplier, Charles Jamrach. Rossetti also had kangaroos and wallabies, armadillos, a racoon, a Canadian woodchuck and a Japanese salamander, as well as larger animals like a zebu. He even discussed the purchase of an African elephant with Jamrach.

On receiving his own wombat, he wrote to his brother describing it as ‘a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness’. This celebrated wombat he named Top and sketched it led on a leash by Jane Morris, wife of William Morris. By all accounts, Morris was a cold husband and Jane had an intimate relationship with Rossetti which spanned decades. Perhaps it seems a little odd that he should place two objects of his affection together in this way – but odder still that they both wear halos.  

However, Top was not long for this world, lasting only a couple of months, and dying despite a vet’s visit in November of 1869. When Top passed on, Rossetti drew a self portrait mourning the loss. He had Top stuffed and displayed him in the entrance to 16 Cheyne Walk.

Wombats are quite large animals, growing to about a metre in length, and Top himself seems quite large in both of Rossetti’s sketches. This drawing, done in 1871 by his friend William Bell Scott on 16 Cheyne Walk notepaper, clearly shows a small animal nestling in Rossetti’s lap – making it perhaps unlikely to be a remaining wombat. Angus Trumble, in his excellent lecture on the subject of the wombat in Victorian Britain and specifically for the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood suggests that this is in fact Rossetti’s Canadian woodchuck.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has more knowledge on either wombats or woodchucks to shed some more light on this charming beast.

Comments

I'm no expert, but hailing from southeast Australia, I have seen a lot of wombats. The creature in Scott's sketch is not a wombat. Common wombat's do not have a tail like this. Wombat have a large, round nose and have larger, stockier paws. The ears of the animal in Scott's sketch are too close to be a wombat's, and a fully grown wombat is considerably larger. But it may not be a woodchuck either. My googling shows woodchucks have a larger, bushy tail. It could be a Groundhog... or a Canadian Prairie Dog perhaps?

The leashed animal in Rossetti's sketch is also not a wombat. Wombats can't stand on their hind legs. But the dead animal in Rossetti's other sketch looks very much like a wombat. It has a prominent head and stubby legs, and is laying on it's back, which is often seen when a wombat becomes roadkill.

Rossetti must have been quite the eccentric. Wombats make terrible pets!

Hi I'm also from Australia and have to agree with WynRichards - wombats do not have tails like this one. The nose could be larger but other than that it is not a bad likeness. While they look cuddly wombats make terrible pets as they are renowned for biting and scratching. Cute to look at but run...

Hi Kirstie

Wombats do have tails - although they are rarely seen and not as large as in this drawing. I can vouch for this as I studied them for some time. It is a vestigial feature and the reason they still have them related to the common ancestors of wombats and koalas being land and tree dwelling.

The images of wombats produced by early artists rarely captured the features of Australian wildlife accurately. Many appeared to 'copy' the more familiar anatomy of European or American animals, hence it is not unusual that a wombat might look a lot like a woodchuck (here it may well be a woodchuck given the rodent like features and looser looking skin etc). A French artist even managed to make them look like hyena! However, Rossetti's other images were pretty spot on as far as the form and movement of common wombats, so my guess is that this would have to be either an early attempt or not a wombat at all.

It was great to find this article. I'm just completing a short essay on wombats in Europe/history and mention Rossetti of course. I am trying to find out a bit about wombats in private collections and zoos in the UK. The London zoo had the record for the oldest known wombat for some time. This surprises many Australians, but it just goes to show that English tucker is not that bad after all!

Male wombats can make terrible pets. However wombats seem to have very different personalities and it really depends on the individual. Some males are aggressive and have an extremely powerful bite, are like a lump of concrete powered by Rolls Royce engine on short legs - and have bulldozer-like tendencies. Yet, I can fully understand how Rossetti became beguiled. They are eccentric, mostly good natured and it's hard not to smile when you see one.

Cheers