How a Wombat Became a Famous Art Muse

Flickr user jell
Flickr user jell / Flickr user jell

Many see the wombat as a charming, sturdy and industrious creature. But it takes an artist’s eye to look at a wombat and see a muse.

And that's what 19th-century painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti did. A leader and founding member of the secret society Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), Rossetti was legendary for both his artistic gifts and his roguish temperament. Where Rossetti went, tumult and heartbreak inevitably followed. He had a taste for drama, the pretty women he called “stunners,” and—like many of his countrymen at the time—exotic animals.

After the death of his long-suffering wife, artist Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti moved into a grand house in London and immediately began collecting foreign fauna. He had armadillos, owls, a woodchuck, peacocks, a salamander, and two jackasses. There were dogs of all shapes and sizes, parakeets, kangaroos, a marmot, and a bull. There was very nearly an elephant, until the deal fell through. But all these wonders were eclipsed the moment Rossetti got his wombat. 

Rossetti’s fascination with wombats began years earlier. He exalted the roly-poly marsupials, and demanded his friends do the same. He took his meetings at the London zoo’s wombat house. Artist Val Prinsep would one day remember the thrall in which Rossetti held his peers: “Rossetti was the planet around which we revolved, we copied his way of speaking. All beautiful women were ‘stunners’ with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.”

The lowly, cube-pooping wombat made its way into the PRB’s private mythology. The painters, who were accustomed to depicting gods, angels, and nymphs, began sketching wombats. The drawing below is a sketch by renowned painter Edward Burne-Jones.

Sketch by Edward Burne-Jones. Public Domain.

The acquisition of a real live wombat was nothing short of a dream fulfilled. “The wombat is a joy, a delight, a madness,” he wrote in a letter to his brother William Michael. Rossetti wasted no time in implicating the wombat in his troublemaking. He named the hapless marsupial Top—which just happened to be a play on the PRB’s nickname for William Morris, the clueless husband of Rossetti’s latest conquest. Here Rossetti depicts Jane Morris, resplendent, walking chubby Top on a leash.

"An aureoled Mrs. Morris leading a wombat by a ribbon across the cloudy floor of heaven," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Image Credit: British Museum

Top had full run of the house. Visitors would later tell tales of finding him asleep on the dining room table, eating ladies’ straw hats, and chewing men’s pant legs.

But the wombat was not long for this world. All of Rossetti’s love affairs ended in tragedy, and this was no different. Top was sickly from the start. William Michael described him as “…the most lumpish and incapable of wombats, with an air of baby objectlessness.”

To his credit, Rossetti did call the “dog doctor” to tend to his beloved wombat, but he was too late. Most wombats live for 15 to 20 years in captivity; Top only made it to age two.

Rossetti was devastated. He had Top’s body stuffed and put him on display by  the front door. The artist gave vent to his grief in a bizarre, illustrated poem

Image Credit: British Museum

I never reared a young wombat

To glad me with his pin-hole eye,

But when he most was sweet and fat

And tailless, he was sure to die!