Portrait of a Lady

Crayon on paper
Image size: 10 x 16 inches
Pre-Raphaelite style frame

Henry Treffry Dunn (1838–1899) was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s assistant and a painter in his own right. Dunn was the son of a tea merchant. He was born in 1838 in Truro and trained at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art in Chelsea.

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 Lillith in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was actually painted by Dunn and only “touched up” by Rossetti.

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.

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 watercolours and his other paintings are in collections in Cornwall and other British galleries.