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Rossetti's wombat: in the March 1965 issue, Michael Archer wrote about the menagerie that Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept at his house in Chyene Walk. It included a wombat, which inspired numerous stories.

Although the wombat's sojourn at Cheyne Walk was brief, it gave rise to a remarkable corpus of myth. As with many other legends, there is a basis of truth. On grand occasions when a number of guests were invited to dinner, Dante Gabriel was in the habit of using the so-called drawing room on the first floor as a dining room. It was a large room with a good view out over the river. On the table in the centre of the room was a large epergne. Into this receptacle Dante Gabriel used apparently to place the somnolent wombat and there it would normally remain fast asleep until lifted down after the guests had gone. James Mc Neill Whistler told a particularly good story about one of these dinners. Among the guests were Meredith, who was talking brilliantly, and Swinburne, who was reading aloud from Leaves of Grass. The wombat was in the epergne and conversation flowed freely. However, the target of Meredith's wit that night was Rossetti. As some of his patrons were present, Rossetti became embarrassed and eventually very cross. 'The evening ended less amiably than it had begun, and no one thought of the wombat until a late hour, and then it had disappeared.' A great search was instituted, but to no avail. Months passed until one day Rossetti sought his cigars for a guest. 'Not a cigar was left but there was the skeleton of the wombat.'

Since the wombat had in fact died in quite different circumstances, Whistler's story was obviously invented. Indeed a box of cigars would have needed to have been astonishingly outsize to have engulfed a whole wombat. What is more likely is that one evening the creature had misbehaved to the extent of nibbling a guests's cigar, much as a few weeks earlier it had chewed at William Michael Rossetti's trousers: but such a dramatic aftermath is out of the question.

Yet the cigar legend persisted and even Ford Madox Brown alleged that a whole box of cigars had been eaten, though with what effects he did not explain. It would be tempting to believe him were it not for another story which must also be apocryphal. He is said to have stated that the placing of the wombat in the epergne inspired the 'dormouse in the tea-pot' incident in Alice in Wonderland, and supports this by saying that Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was a frequent visitor at Cheyne Walk when he was writing Alice. Gratifying though it would be to believe this story, it cannot be true because Dodgson was visiting Rossetti (and taking a marvellous set of photographs of him) in 1863, at the end of which year he was writing the chapters 'A Mad Tea-party' and 'Who stole the tarts?' We can only assume that, as this was long before the arrival of the wombat, Madox Brown was either thinking of another pet or had merely 'concertina-ed' the two events in his mind.
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Author:Archer, Michael
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:494
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