October 2020: Artists in Wonderland – Mark Davies

On 12 October, via Zoom, Mark Davies (local historian and author of Alice in Waterland) described and illustrated the adventures in Oxford of some of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and their encounters with Thomas Combe, Printer to the University, philanthropist, and art collector; and Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In 1850 John Millais and Charles Collins were experiencing what Millais described as ‘Bottleyonian privations’, receiving poor fare at a boarding house near Wytham Woods. Through James Wyatt, an Oxford art dealer and picture framer, they met Thomas and Martha Combe. Martha supplied them with a meat pie; and Thomas assisted Millais in locating the shoes of the child model for The Woodman’s Daughter, so that Millais could paint them accurately. Collins later painted the flowers for Convent Thoughts in the garden of the University Press in Jericho, where the Combes lived.

The Pre-Raphaelite ‘Brotherhood’ in Oxford expanded to include Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones. They attempted, without proper preparation, to paint murals of Arthurian legends in the Union Society’s  library. The daughters of Mrs Lipscombe, landlady of the Trout Inn, Godstow, were noted ‘stunners’. Rossetti persuaded Morris to journey to Godstow to ask one to model for Isoude. He met with a heated refusal, and returned crestfallen to Oxford.

Charles Dodgson was also in the Combes’ circle. His photographs are particularly valuable because he carefully identified and dated them: for example Holman Hunt and Thomas Combe in 1860, Millais in 1865, and Rossetti in 1863.

St Frideswide’s well at Binsey, which would probably have been known to the Pre-Raphaelites from sketching and walking over Port Meadow, was the inspiration for the treacle well in Alice. And the ‘Drawling-master’ is said to be based on John Ruskin. He and others, especially the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, advised Dodgson not to use his own drawings, which led to him engaging Tenniel as his illustrator.

Martha Combe inherited Thomas’s collection, and bequeathed much important Pre-Raphaelite art to the Ashmolean Museum. Search for ashmolean.org to look at it online, and check about visiting.

Reports of earlier meetings