Rossetti's Wombat cover
Rossetti's Wombatby John Simons
- Length: 142 pages
- Format: Paperback
- Size: 5.25 x 8.5 inches
- First Published: 2008
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Pre-Raphaelite painter living in Victorian London, briefly owned a wombat named Top. Although Top lived only two years, 1867 to 1869, and only two months with Rossetti, he made an indelible impression.
Rossetti's Wombat tells the story of Top and how he intersected so many lives during his brief life. Rossetti's circle of friends included a number of prominent writers and artists, and his house in Chelsea was home to many exotic animals, much to the annoyance of his neighbors.
The book is written in a friendly, conversational tone and is a fascinating look into the lives of these Pre-Raphaelite artists and the complex relationships they had with one another.
Top lived a strange and enigmatic life, being adored by Rossetti and most of his guests, yet little seems to be know about him. The book is exceedingly well-researched and there probably couldn't be a more thorough look at the short life of Top, but I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't more about the wombat. There probably just isn't much more that could be told.
A wombat of some fame, Top is often attributed as the inspiration for the dormouse in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, but, sadly, Simons argues that this is probably not true.
Nevertheless, Top lives on in both legend and reality. Referring to Top, Rossetti penned the famous phrase "a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness," which is often quoted to this day to describe wombats.
Simons goes to great lengths to trace Top's probable journey from Tasmania to England aboard Prince Alfred's ship, the Galatea. Top was officially presented to the Prince in Hobart, and was described as "so tame and docile that it soon became a general favourite with all on board the Galatea." Once in England, Top ended up in Jamrach's, a famous East End shop in London that dealt in exotic animals. (Jamrach may also have been involved in P.T. Barnum's purchase of Jumbo the elephant.)
Years before Top, Rossetti already had a predisposition towards wombats as he and his friends had discovered them in the London Zoo and enjoyed their antics. So it's not surprising that Rossetti, who loved collecting exotic beasts and who frequented Jamrach's, was compelled to buy Top when he became available. Wombats were very rare in London at the time, and Top would make a unique addition to his menagerie.
Ultimately Top was more than just another one of his animals, and Rossetti called him "a delightful creature - a most comical little beast." Top seemed to have the run of the house, including sleeping in the center of the table during Rossetti's dinner parties. After his death, Top was stuffed and put on display in Rossetti's entrance hall, but his whereabouts today remain unknown.
Illustrated with period drawings and etchings, Rossetti's Wombat is an engaging book. A whimsical look at a unique period in the history of Victorian England when wombats and artists collided.
A review copy of the book was provided by the publisher.
Four out of five stars
by Peter Marinacci
Ap. 26, 2009