Tate Britain have just opened an exciting exhibition, The Rossettis, which inspired me to write about our local connections to the Rossetti family.

The countryside around Amersham and particularly Holmer Green, famed for its cherry orchards, inspired the natural details of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings.

The countryside also had a lifelong influence on the celebrated poet, Christina Rossetti.

Despite living most of her life in gloomy London houses, her poems are full of images and references to the rural world she experienced as a child at the home of her maternal grandparents, the Polidoris, in Holmer Green.

This history is reflected in the local names.

Little Missenden Parish Council office building is named Rossetti Hall, and Polidoris Lane and Rossetti Place were built on what had been the Polidoris’ farm in Holmer Green.

Polidoris Cottage in Polidoris Lane is said to have been built from the reclaimed bricks of the farmhouse.

The Rossetti Family

The Rossetti parents were both academic and educated. Gabriele Rossetti was an Italian poet and political exile from the Kingdom of Naples.

He emigrated to England in 1824 and established a career as a Dante scholar and Italian teacher in London.

He married the half-English, half-Italian Frances Polidori in 1826 and four children followed in quick succession: Maria in 1827, then Gabriel, 1828 (famous as Dante Gabriel but always called Gabriel), William, 1829, and Christina, 1830.

The family lived at Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury in a tall house with no garden, which was usually filled with Italian exiles debating politics and art, and declaiming poetry.

Frances Polidori had worked as a governess from the age of 16 and educated the children at home before the two boys were sent to school to learn Latin and other subjects beyond Frances Rossetti’s capability.

The girls had to make do with learning from their brothers’ textbooks. Whilst closest to William in age, Christina was like the fiery, talented Gabriel in temperament.

Their father described them as the two “storms”, as opposed to Maria and William, who were the “calms”.

It was a bi-lingual household and the children were encouraged to be creative. All four became distinguished writers. Maria was the author of a respected study of Dante, as well as books on religious instruction.

Dante Gabriel is known to us as an eminent painter, but he also published volumes of poetry, and was one of the most famous poets of his era.

William was a prolific art and literary critic and wrote the first account of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Christina became one of the Victorian age’s finest poets as the author of numerous books of poetry.

The Polidoris

Frances’ English mother, Anna Maria Pierce, had also been educated by her academic parents and had worked as a governess. Suffering from ill-health and often bedridden, she moved permanently to the family farmhouse in Homer Green, then a quiet and isolated community.

She was a strict High Anglican, raising her daughters in her faith which Frances in turn passed on to Christina and Maria.

Anna Maria’s Italian husband, Gaetano Polidori, retired to Holmer Green in 1936, but returned to London in 1939.

The library at the house was considered so impressive that it was known as Holmer College in the village. The Rossettis were frequent visitors and Christina, whom he nicknamed Vivace, was particularly close to her grandfather.

Gaetano Polidori had studied law at the University of Pisa before working in France where he witnessed the storming of the Bastille.

He settled in Highgate and married Anna Maria, after establishing himself as an Italian teacher and translator. As well as translating literary works such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, he also published his own work.

The couple had seven children and the eldest son, John William Polidori, a doctor, found fame as Lord Byron’s physician.

He is credited as the creator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction.

Also a published poet, his most successful work was the short story The Vampyre (1819), the first published modern vampire story.

This was conceived in the Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, on the same evening that Mary Shelley created Frankenstein.

Country holidays

Late in life, Christina Rossetti, wrote to the journalist Edmund Gosse that her literary inspiration had started during her happy childhood and particularly in “Grandpapa’s garden”, where she had “the delightful idle liberty to prowl all alone about the cottage grounds” which offered “inexhaustible delight”.

Here currant bushes, holly, cherry trees and blackthorn sheltered the songbirds that features in Christina’s book of nursery rhymes, Sing-Song.

The 30-mile journey to Holmer Green was via stagecoach to High Wycombe or via Amersham where they were dropped off in Little Missenden. This then involved a two mile walk up Penfold Lane. This steep hill is believed to be the inspiration for Christina’s first major success, the devotional poem, Uphill. She also set a children’s story in Holmer Green.

In the countryside around Holmer Green Christina developed a fascination for insects and all-minute creatures, and often joined her brothers catching frogs in the village pond. She had her “first vivid experience with death” when she found a dead mouse in the orchard and witnessed its decay. The beauty and corruption of the natural world were recurring themes in her poetry.


Before Christina’s poems were published commercially in magazines, Gaetano Polidori printed a collection of her poems Verses in 1847, when Christina was just 16. Printed on Polidori’s private printing press, this collection was distributed widely amongst family friends.

Christina became one of the few 19th century women to earn her living by her writing. Today her poems Remember and When I Am Dead, my Dearest are popular choices at funerals and memorial services, but she is probably best remembered for her poem, In a Bleak Midwinter, now sung as Christmas carol.

A longer version of this article can be found at amershammuseum.org.