Henry Treffry Dunn

(1838 -1899)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's assistant and a painter in his own right. Dunn's memoirs are a valuable source for the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites. He was paid to be Rossetti's factotum and to create copies of Rossetti's paintings. It has been said that the painting Lady Lilith in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was actually painted by Dunn and only "touched up" by Rossetti. He left Rossetti's house because he was owed his salary. After Rossetti died, Dunn received the money that was owing to him and he eventually died whilst living with the poets Swinburne and Theodore Watts-Dunton.

Dunn was the son of a tea merchant. He was born in 1838 in Truro and trained at Heatherleys School of Fine Art in Chelsea. His sister Edith (born 1841) exhibited paintings, and another of his sisters was a professor of music. He took up the position of assistant to Rossetti at Cheyne Walk in 1867 when Rossetti's assistant, Walter Knewstubb, left to launch his own career. Dunn had been recommended for the position by the American artist Walter Deverell. The painter's brother William Rossetti described Dunn as having bright dark eyes and being prematurely grey.

Dunn's paintings are influenced by Rossetti and in some cases he would make preliminary studies and copies for Rossetti. His painting style was described as "more solid than graceful". Dunn recounted that he was given the position after successfully creating a copy of Rossetti's work. Rossetti used his assistant frequently to create copies which he would complete and at one stage Dunn complains at having to create a third copy of the same painting. Some have said that some of Rossetti's paintings were in fact almost entirely created by Dunn. Charles Fairfax Murray who was later another of Rossetti's assistants claimed that the 'Lady Lilith' in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was painted by Dunn and then "touched up" by Rossetti.

Dunn's paintings include a version of 'Lady Lilith' which is attributed to him. Dunn is thought to have later recreated this picture in coloured chalk based on Rossetti's version. Alexa or Alice Wilding was admired by Dunn although it not known if his feelings were returned. Dunn is reported to have only had a few women in his life and no long term attachments. Dunn was not only an artist's assistant, but also a secretary and friend. It was Dunn who first arranged for Rossetti to get a bank account as Rossetti would keep his money in a drawer where he, and others, could freely help themselves.

Dunn worked as Rossetti's assistant for many years, but they quarreled and Rossetti refused to pay him. The quarrel continued until Dunn returned to his native Cornwall in 1880 leaving Rossetti's household in chaos. Rossetti then replaced Dunn with another companion; the author Hall Caine. The lost salary remained in dispute until after Rossetti's death. When Rossetti died, Dunn was very helpful to William Rossetti in his role as executor though he considered Dunn to be an alcoholic. Dunn eventually obtained the considerable sum of money that was owed to him from Rossetti's estate. At the end of his life he was taken in by the critic and poet Theodore Watts-Dunton who had earlier saved Swinburne from alcoholism. The three of them lived together at Watts-Dunton's house until Dunn died in 1899. Dunn's recollections of Rossetti and his friends were later published.

Henry Treffry Dunn, Wikipedia

Dante Gabriel Rossetti reading a poem to his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton in Henry Treffry Dunn’s 1882 depiction of the eclectic sitting room at Tudor House

HENRY TREFFRY DUNN, the author of these Recollections, was born at Truro, in 1838. For some time he was engaged as a clerk in the Cornish Bank of his native city, but when about twenty-four years of age, the artistic instinct strong within him, he abandoned the desk for the palette and brush, and adopted painting as a profession. Soon after, as he himself relates, he received an introduction to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. At once he was irresistibly attracted by the magnetism which formed one of the most noteworthy facets of the personality of that poet, painter, and leader of men, and came under the spell of that influence which he possessed over all around him, and none were ever able or willing to liberate themselves from. He forthwith took up his residence with Rossetti. Many years of close comradeship and daily intercourse followed between the chief and his disciple, and it was the good fortune of the latter, during this period, to meet on terms of intimacy those men of distinction the record of whose achievements constitutes the history of Poetry, Art, and Letters in the nineteenth century whom Rossetti collected around him, and to be constantly present at those frequent and prolonged meetings in the dimly-lit studio at Cheyne Walk, which were famous for their intellectual charm and brilliancy.

Henry Treffry Dunn was himself a painter of no mean ability, but for the most part he was content to remain under the shadow cast by the towering genius and capacity of the master. One of his works hangs in the council chamber of his native city a portrait of Dr. Barham.

As may be gathered and inferred from his Recollections, in common with all who enjoyed his friendship he felt a deep affeftion for Rossetti as a man, and a profound admiration for him as a poet and painter. He is expressly mentioned by Mr. William Michael Rossetti as one of his brother's friends in the Preface to the Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He died in February, 1899. Both he and his chief have long since solved the tremendous mysteries of life and death, upon which they were wont so often to speculate together.

Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and His Circle -- (Cheyne Walk Life) by the late Henry Treffry Dunn, edited and annotated by Gale Pedrick, with a Prefatory Note by William Michael Rossetti, New York, James Pott & York, London, Elkin Mathews, 1904; Printed by R. Folkard and Son, 22, Devonshire Street, Queen Square, Bloomsbury, London, W.C.

Cheyne Walk looking East from Don Saltero's Tavern in 1850 by T.H.Shepherd

View painter's art: Henry Treffry Dunn (1838 -1899)

google.com [new window view]