What’s your go-to excuse when you miss an important deadline through no fault but your own? Death of a grandparent? Leaky ceiling? How about … constant diarrhea? Sorry to say, but the latter may just be one of the oldest tricks in the book, as evidenced by written correspondence between troubled Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Scottish-born Liverpool banker George Rae — a fervent collector who was strung along for about five years regarding a commissioned painting.

While chatter around Rossetti’s personal life typically revolves around his torrid and obsessive relationships with the models who posed for his paintings, the National Museums Liverpool (NML) is shining a different kind of light on Rossetti — and showing that he didn’t hold back in more ways than one. Sourcing from its archives, the NML is displaying one of several letters between Rossetti and Rae pertaining to the former’s repeated failure to complete “Sibylla Palmifera” (c. 1865–70).

“I have had a constant diarrhoea and other troublesome symptoms since coming to Speke [Hall]; nevertheless, as I found I should not see you here today,” Rossetti wrote to Rae in August 1868, dodging an attempt to meet with the collector during a visit to Liverpool while having procrastinated on completing “Sibylla Palmifera” for a few years by then. The museum’s Walker Art Gallery archives possess the entire back-and-forth correspondence between the two regarding the painting among other communications.

Beyond the diarrhea excuse, the artist also wrote about getting sidetracked with other assignments as Rae began losing his patience and pressing more aggressively for the work he was buttered up to pay a hefty deposit for. The banker had become increasingly frustrated with Rossetti’s inability to communicate the status of the painting’s completion, and the annoyance mounted days before the diarrhea admission when the artist had sent him an invoice for the painting’s custom frame about a week prior — two years before the work would be finished.

There it is, inked in stunning Victorian-era script … “diarrhoea”

By the end of 1870, Rae wrote a desperate plea that “after the many many Christmases we have looked forward to this supreme delight, could you not in the intervals of your greater work finish her [the painting] merely as a relaxation?”

In an email to Hyperallergic, NML’s curator of British Art Melissa Gustin shared that she came across the letter while looking for a different piece of correspondence from the artist.

“I did almost drop the letter when I came across it in the file, because there’s diarrhoea just fully visible on the front page — I think Rossetti would have thought that was funny,” Gustin said.

Speaking on how these documented interactions “humanize” Rossetti, who quite honestly may have been experiencing “troublesome symptoms” at the time due to his poorly health and habitual substance abuse, Gustin hopes that the public can see more of themselves in the artists and works they create through exposing the behind-the-scenes drama.

“They’re relatable people who send bitchy letters going, ‘Where is my painting, it’s been four Christmases and I want my painting! It will ruin my party if we don’t have this painting and cure my ailments if I do have this painting!'” the curator remarked. “I definitely find Rossetti more relatable for his excuses than for his poetry.”

To end the extended saga on a happy note, Rossetti did eventually complete the painting in 1870, to Rae’s total delight. Perhaps the moral of the story all along is that you simply cannot rush good work!

The letter will be displayed alongside the completed “Sibylla Palmifera” through April 2024, and the painting will remain on display for the foreseeable future.

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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