Meet Nicholas Dunn-McAfee, DelArt’s Visiting Researcher

In 1880, Samuel Bancroft, Jr., was “shocked with delight” on viewing his first Pre-Raphaelite painting. A decade later, Bancroft purchased his first Pre-Raphaelite work of art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Water Willow (1871), starting what would become the largest and most important collection of British Pre-Raphaelite art and manuscript materials in the United States.

It’s because of that collection that I’m “shocked with delight” to be over from the University of York in the UK as a Visiting Researcher for October and November. It’s a privilege to be here, particularly with The Rossettis opening last week.

My doctorate, funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, explores the work of Rossetti, one of the major painters and poets of the Victorian era. Specifically, I’m researching his “double works of art.” These image-text composites often take the form of a painting and a sonnet — with the poem frequently inscribed on the frame of the picture. They share a title, comment and elaborate on each other, and work to develop a vision, ideal, or experience. 

Water Willow, Bancroft’s first purchase, was actually a “double work” and Delaware Art Museum has a number of major examples. These include: Lady Lilith (1866-1868), Veronica Veronese (1872), La Bella Mano (1875), Mnemosyne (1881), and Found (1859-unfinished).

Put bluntly: I couldn’t do my research without access to these compelling artworks which is why I’m so excited to finally be here. It’s impossible to be a scholar of 19th-century British art and literature and not know about this rich collection — I knew about it before I actually knew where Delaware was on a map!

I’ve had an interest in Rossetti since first encountering his poetry as a teenager, but it wasn’t until the latter part of an English Literature degree at the University of Oxford that I really started to think about his poetry and his paintings. Despite him being a commanding figure in 19th-century studies, appreciation of artistic skills and experimental technique is still held back by preconceived ideas about his sumptuous, “fleshly” pictures. Paradoxically, his huge public popularity seems to have hindered (rather than helped) his academic reputation. 

Before the doctorate, I worked in politics in London and spent far too many hours on weekends looking at Rossetti’s work (as well as Pre-Raphaelite and Aestheticist paintings) in the Tate Britain. It’s a great pleasure, then, that I now get to think, write, read, and talk about his paintings and poems as my day job.

On that note, I’m delighted to be giving a number of gallery talks for The Rossettis exhibition during my time here. I’ll be talking about the “double works” Lady Lilith (November 2nd), Found (November 17), and Veronica Veronese (November 30th). Please sign-up and come along if you’re interested: they’re fascinating works of art, and please feel free to bring along any questions you might have about them.

Nicholas Dunn-McAfee
Doctoral candidate, History of Art and English Literature, University of York, UK

Artwork in image: Found, Designed 1853; begun 1859; unfinished. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 31 15/16 inches, frame: 50 × 46 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935. Photograph by Shannon Woodloe.