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Surtees, Virginia

    Full Name: Surtees, Virginia

    Other Names:

    • Virginia Bell, Lady Clarke, Virginia Craig

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 09 January 1917

    Date Died: 22 September 2017

    Place Born: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Pre-Raphaelite

    Career(s): art historians

    Institution(s): Victoria and Albert Museum


    Art historian and leading scholar of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement; produced the definitive reference book for Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Born Virginia Bell in London to Bertha Bell (1891–1974) and Edward Bell (1882–1924). Her father, a Harvard graduate and friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was appointed chargé d’affaires of the U.S. in Beijing in 1922. Therefore, Virginia and her older sister Evangeline (1914-1995) spent their early childhood in China. After Edward’s early death in 1924, Virginia’s mother remarried a British diplomat, Sir James Dodds (1861–1935), a Britisher, who was posted by England to Tokyo in 1937. Surtees married Henry Ashley Clarke (1903–1994), a colleague of her stepfather at the British Embassy in Tokyo. After the couple moved back to London in the early 1950s, Surtees spent three years at the Victoria and Albert Museum working on Gabrielle Enthoven’s theater collection, also known as “the theatrical encyclopedia.” Surtees bought a Rosetti painting Rosa Triplex in 1951 for just £285.  Her husband was appointed to Rome and while there she met and had an affair with David Leonard Craig (1914–1996). She and Clarke divorced and married Craig in 1960. She divorced Craig in 1962, moving back to London, taking her maternal grandfather’s surname, Surtees, in order to inherit Mainsforth Hall, a country house in County Durham. Surtees began her Dante Gabriel Rossetti collection when her grandmother, the daughter of the artist’s model Louisa Ruth Herbert (1831–1921), bequeathed her many of the artist’s works. Free to pursue her interest while living on her own, Surtees spent ten years compiling a complete catalogue raisonné of Rossetti with assistance from art historian John Gere. The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) was published in 1971 in two volumes and dedicated to Sir Sydney Cockerell, who supported Surtees’s accomplishment of this arduous task. She published Sublime and Instructive, in 1972, collecting the letters between John Ruskin and the artist Louisa Waterford (1818–1891). In 1973, Surtees curated the first modern retrospective of Rossetti at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The exhibition included paintings, drawings, and watercolors that reintroduced Rossetti as an artist to the public who had hitherto only known him as a poet.  In 1991, Surtees curated an exhibition of Rossetti’s portraits of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal (1829–1862), at the Ashmolean Museum. She never married again living in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, South Kensington, until she entered a nursing home in 2014 and died in 2017.

    As a prolific writer, Surtees published over a dozen of biographies, memoirs, and collected letters. For example, a book on Charlotte Canning, Lady-In-Waiting to Queen Victoria (1817-1861) in 1975. Surtees possessed a substantial collection of Rossetti’s work, the most important of which was auctioned at Christie’s in 2014. Her painting Rosa Triplex, which she purchased in 1951 for £285, sold for  for £902,500. The rest of her collections were given to the British Museum, the Bristol City Art Gallery, the Ashmolean Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and the Bristol City Museum. 

    Surtees was an amateur historian, and the first draft of Surtees’ catalogue raisonné required considerable editorial effort from the Oxford University Press and John Gere. Nevertheless, the book was warmly received and praised as indispensable for a full exploration of the nature and significance of Rossetti’s art and “the first catalogue raisonné devoted to the work of an English painter of the period.” Surtees’ meticulous archival research resulted in the publication of collected letters and biographies based entirely on primary sources (Ormond).

    Selected Bibliography

    • The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971;
    • ed., Sublime & Instructive; Letters from John Ruskin to Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, Anna Blunden and Ellen Heaton. London: Joseph, 1972;
    • Charlotte Canning: Lady-In-Waiting to Queen Victoria and Wife of the First Viceroy of India 1817-1861. London: J. Murray, c1975;
    • Rossetti’s portraits of Elizabeth Siddal: a Catalogue of the Drawings and Watercolours. Aldershot [England]: Scolar Press, in association with Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1991.


    • Dorment, Richard. “Virginia Surtees Obituary.” The Guardian. 5 Dec 2017;
    • ​​——. “Surtees [née Bell], Virginia (1917–2017), Art Historian and Biographer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 14 Jan 2021;
    • Greene, Michael. “The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné.” The Georgia Review, 27, p. 601–605. 1973;
    • Ormond, Richard. “The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 120, no. 5185, p. 45. 1971;
    • Reynolds, Graham. “The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 at Catalogue Raisonne.” Apollo: The International Magazine of Art & Antiques, 95, p. 70. Jan 1972;
    • Roberts Keith. “Virginia Surtees (1917-2017).” The Burlington Magazine. Feb 2018.


    Contributors: Siyu Chen


    Siyu Chen. "Surtees, Virginia." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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