Brethren in Sincerity: The Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood … had on their side three things that
the English public never forgives: youth, power and enthusiasm.
– Oscar Wilde, The English Renaissance of Art (1882)
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), later known simply as the Pre-Raphaelites, was a group founded in September, 1848 by artists William Holman Hunt, OM (1827-1910), Sir John Everett Millais, PRA (1829-96), and Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti (1828-82), known as Dante Gabriel, in the Millais family home at 83 Gower Street, London.
Rossetti had earlier been a pupil of Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), to whom he remained close, although Brown declined to join the Brotherhood because ‘he had no faith in coteries’. The three founders were joined by sculptor and poet Thomas Woolner, RA (1825-92), art critic Frederic George Stephens (1827-1907), painter James Collinson (1825-81), whose religious convictions led to his resignation from the group in 1850, and Rossetti’s younger brother, the writer and critic William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919). He became the Brotherhood’s unofficial organiser, bibliographer, secretary, and the editor of their short-lived literary periodical The Germ: Thoughts Towards Nature In Poetry, Literature and Art (of which there were four issues between January and April 1850).
The Brotherhood sought to challenge the entrenched aesthetic style as propagated by the Royal Academy and its Schools: conventions governing composition, technique, and appropriate subject matter. The conservative curriculum of the Schools, which Hunt, Millais, Rossetti and Collinson attended, was established by its founder and first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), and expressed in his fifteen Discourses (1769-90). The Pre-Raphaelites, who derisively referred to Sir Joshua as ‘Sir Sloshua’, were frustrated by the status quo. They wanted to inspire reform of an art establishment they felt was stultifying, derivative, wilfully out of touch with the times, and whose narrow ‘academic’ standards of beauty was detrimental to individual expression. As Angela Thirlwell notes, “Presenting modern issues through the palimpsest of medieval art gave Pre-Raphaelitism its shock and excitement … but their themes and subject matter – fallen women, prostitution, illegitimacy, suicide and adultery – all challenged social taboos. In effect they made the medieval modern. They were realists. Through their peculiarity they also made English art universal or at least international”.1
The intention of the Pre-Raphaelites was to return to a style of painting more akin to the medieval, or quattrocento period. In this, they distanced their work from the ‘High Renaissance’, identified as the short period of exceptional artistic production within the Italian states dating from the 1490s and ending in 1527 with the sacking of Rome by the mutinous troops of the Emperor Charles V. The Pre-Raphaelites rejected stylistic devices such as Sfumato and Chiaroscuro commonly associated with the High Renaissance masters Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Simoni, and, of course, Raphael da Urbino. Instead, they proposed a return to the ‘realistic’ depiction of figures and interiors, conspicuous attention to detail, and fidelity to the natural world. As William Michael Rossetti was to recall of the Brotherhood’s founders,
All three condemned the commonplace anecdotal subjects of most British
painters of the day, and their flimsy pretences at cleverness of execution,
unsupported either by clear intuition into the facts of nature, or by lofty
or masculine style, or by an effort at sturdy realisation … the British School
of painting, as a school, was in 1848 wishy-washy to the last degree; nothing
imagined finely, nor descried keenly, nor executed puissantly. The three
young men hated all this. They hated the cant about Raphael and the Great
Masters, for utter cant it was in the mouths of such underlings of the brush
as they saw all around them; and they determined to make a new start on a
firm basis. What was the basis to be? It was to be serious and elevated
invention of subject, along with earnest scrutiny of visible facts, and an
earnest endeavour to present them veraciously and exactly.2
In his later book, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1905), Holman Hunt reflected on the group’s philosophy and the stylistic concerns that distinguished their works,
Not alone was the work that we were bent on producing to be more
persistently derived from Nature than any having a dramatic significance
yet done in the world; not simply were our productions to establish a more
frank study of creation as their initial intention, but the name adopted by us
negatived the suspicion of any servile antiquarianism. Pre-Raphaelitism is
not Pre-Raphaelitism. Raphael in his prime was an artist of the most
independent and daring course as to conventions…whoever were the
transgressors, the artists who thus servilely travestied this prince of
painters at his prime were Raphaelites… The name Pre-Raphaelites
excludes the influence of such corruptors of perfection, even though
Raphael, by reason of some of his works, be in the list, while it accepts that
of his more sincere forerunners.3
Many of the figures in Pre-Raphaelite works appear ‘flattened’, their harder outlines rendered with thin glazes of pigment on a wet white ground so that they seem almost hyper-real, and would retain a jewel-like clarity. This lent a romanticised and glowing vision to a medieval age that existed only in the fertile minds of these young artists.
The National Gallery of Victoria holds the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite works in the Southern Hemisphere, the majority of which are works on paper, including about 200 book illustrations. Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (until 12 July, 2015) brings together both the major acquisitions and several of the more unusual pieces within this important sub-collection, which has not been accorded a designated exhibition since 1978. In amongst the drawings, paintings, sculptural works, albumen photographs, and illustrations, curator Laurie Benson has defly integrated stained glass, textiles, furniture, wallpaper and ceramics. The NGV’s collection is complemented by five significant and rarely seen works from private Melbourne lenders, including three works on paper by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Preliminary Studies for Troy Triptych (1871) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-98), which greatly enhances the viewer’s understanding and enjoyment of his imposing The Wheel of Fortune (1871-85).
Katherine Horseman, the exhibition designer for Medieval Moderns, drew inspiration from many of the forms and motifs that came to be associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. “I worked to create an exhibition space that was evocative of the period without being too literal. For example the arched doorways throughout are based on a classic Gothic arch but presented in a very pared back way. One space where I was able to go a little more over-the-top was in the last room that displays a range of furniture, decorative arts and books”, she remarks. “The wallpaper in this space is based on a William Morris [1834-96] design from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer published by the Kelmscott Press in 1896. While there are many Morris wallpapers still in production, I wanted to use a pattern from the Kelmscott book, particularly as we were lucky enough to have a copy of it in the exhibition [on loan from the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne]. While the pattern is quintessentially Morris, when magnified and tiled into a wallpaper it became a bold design statement and helped to unify the works in the room”.
Aside from the standard Biblical and historical subjects, landscapes and figure studies, Pre-Raphaelite works were characterised by their close connection to the literary world. Poet William Bell Scott (1811-90), who knew the Rossetti family, even composed a laudatory poem addressed to the PRB (1851), which read in part, “For you have shown, with youth’s brave confidence/The honesty of true speech and sense/Uniting life with ‘nature’, earth with sky”. The artists and their circle generated their own poems and critiques, while venerating the output of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Malory, Romantic poets such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and contemporaries such as the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Dante Gabriel Rossetti bought William Blake’s manuscript Notebook in 1847, and the Brotherhood was largely responsible for reviving Blake’s reputation in the Victorian era. Blake’s manner of combining text and image was a source of inspiration to the group, which they experimented with in The Germ, and which informed the illustrated work the artists later produced for various poetry volumes.
The three PRB founders had been signing their works with the mysterious initials as early as 1848, but it was not until 1850 that its meaning was disclosed, courtesy of the loose lips of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s friend sculptor Alexander Munro (1825-71). Munro told journalist Angus Bethune Reach (1821-56) of the Illustrated London News, and shortly thereafter the Brotherhood members found themselves lambasted by contemporary critics for their youthful presumption. When Millais’ work Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) was exhibited at the Royal Academy it met with widespread criticism for its frank and unidealised depiction of the Holy family. Audiences were shocked at the demonstrably humble circumstances depicted, and the realistic state of St. Joseph’s busy carpenter’s workshop in which the family are grouped – including curls of wood shavings on the floor. Holman Hunt revisited the workshop setting in his painting depicting the grown Christ, The Shadow of Death (1873), which he commenced in the Holy Land. Included here, the hand-coloured engraving (1878), of this immensely popular work shows the floor strewn with even more shavings, in clear reference to its controversial predecessor.
No less a figure than Charles Dickens (1812-70), widely regarded as the literary colossus of his time, launched an extraordinary broadside against Millais’ painting in his weekly magazine Household Words (1850-59). “You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly [sic.] considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting …”, he thundered. “Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed”.4 Stung by the backlash, Millais consulted the group’s associate, poet Coventry Patmore (1823-96), who worked at the British Museum and had contributed to The Germ, as to whether the most influential art critic of the Victorian era, John Ruskin (1819-1900), would intercede on the Brotherhood’s behalf.
Ruskin was widely admired for what would become a five-volume work, Modern Painters (1843-60), the first volume of which, in 1843, was largely devoted to defending the later work of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). The second volume in 1846 placed an emphasis on symbolism in art, expressed through nature. Ruskin was a proponent of the Gothic Revival in England, and despite his ambivalence towards Millais’ painting, he recognised the sincerity of its intent, and agreed to the request. In the first of two letters to The Times (13th and 30th of May, 1851), he opined, “As far as I can judge of their aim … the Pre-Raphaelites intend to surrender no advantage which the knowledge or inventions of the present time can afford to their art. They intend to return to early days in this one point only- that, as far as in them lies, they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture making”.
Following this initial foray, Ruskin became the Pre-Raphaelites’ de facto patron and chief defender, visiting their studios and offering his guidance. By August he had published a more extensive pamphlet on the subject of their work, Pre-Raphaelitism (1851), in which he refined his views regarding their controversial œuvre. “The Pre-Raphaelites imitate no pictures: they paint from nature only. But they have opposed themselves, as a body, to that kind of teaching … which only began after Raphael’s time; and they have opposed themselves as sternly to the entire feeling of the Renaissance schools – a feeling compounded of indolence, infidelity, sensuality, and shallow pride”. Ruskin went on to make the following prediction, “If they adhere to their principles and paint Nature as it is around them, with the help of modern science – with the earnestness of the men of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they will, as I said, found a new and noble school in England”. He systematically refuted what he called the “false statements” regarding both the technical abilities of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and their mode of expression. “Their system of light and shade is exactly the same as the Sun’s; which is, I believe, likely to outlast that of the Renaissance, however brilliant”, he tartly observed.5
Ruskin’s abilities as a wide-ranging writer, social theorist and a talented draughtsman and watercolourist in his own right have been somewhat eclipsed by the notorious circumstances of his marriage to a distant cousin, the beautiful Euphemia ‘Effie’ Chalmers Gray (1828-97). Their marriage went unconsummated for six years due to Ruskin’s apparent physical distaste for his wife, as she confided to her father George, “… and finally this last year [Ruskin] told me his true reason (and this to me is as villainous as all the rest) that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April ”.6
What prompted Ruskin’s ‘disgust’ has never been adequately established, with theories ranging from Gray’s pubic hair, to the possibility that she was menstruating at the time. The idea that Ruskin was so unworldly as to believe that his wife was as hairless and smooth as a classical nude seems far-fetched. A recent biographer has given the ‘wrong time of the month’ angle further credence, “It was a messy business of torn rags, crimson against the whiteness of her fine linen. John was a fastidious man, and he found he could not cope with his flesh-and-blood wife. The marriage was effectively over as soon as it began”.7
Although Ruskin’s involvement with this circle of ambitious young artists was intellectually stimulating, and invigorated his critical discourse, it was to prove ultimately disastrous for his personal reputation. He had taken a particular interest in the affable Millais, whom he met in June, 1851, and encouraged his bored and neglected wife to model for his new protégé. After Ruskin brought them together at various other times, including a journey to Scotland in July, 1853, the two formed an attachment. Gray posed for Millais’ Jacobite-themed work The Order Of Release, 1746 (1853), and shortly thereafter set about securing her own. With great courage and the support of her family and influential friends, Gray filed suit for an annulment, occasioning an immense public scandal. The circumstances of this intolerable mariage blanc formed the basis of the recent film Effie Gray (Richard Laxton, 2014).
The NGV’s work The Rescue (1855), which Millais considered one of his best paintings, was shown in May at the Royal Academy, and he married Gray in July, 1855. The dramatic subject-matter, a domestic tragedy averted by a fireman who rescues a woman’s three children from a burning house, won Ruskin’s praise. In the first year of his Academy Notes pamphlets (published annually until 1859), Ruskin magnanimously declared it to be “the only great picture exhibited this year; but this is very great. The immortal element is in it to the full … the execution of the picture is remarkably bold …”.8 The Millais marriage produced eight children, and Gray ably supported her husband’s rise to the apex of the art firmament when he became the first artist to be created a Baronet in 1885, and was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1896. For Ruskin however, the stigma of the Ecclesiastical Court’s judgement of 1854 meant that his aspiration to marry another young girl, Rose La Touche, in 1870 was quashed by her parents.
Pre-Raphaelite works are renowned for the preponderance of striking women as the focal point, or a significant presence, within the frame. An abundance of themes and subjects for such works were to be readily found in the texts privileged by the artists. Yet for all its anti-establishment posturing, the Brotherhood was typical of its time in that it functioned as an exclusively homo-social group, based on male social networking, which “maintained strict demarcations between women’s roles (as muses) and men’s (as creators)”.9 The only female contributor to The Germ, using the pseudonym ‘Ellen Alleyne’, was Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-94), sister of Dante Gabriel and William Michael. She was at one point engaged to James Collinson, but her religious convictions led her to break off the relationship when he returned to the Roman Catholic faith. Dante Gabriel used Christina as the model for numerous of his works, including the sombre portrait, Christina Rossetti (1877) seen here.
An accomplished poet, Christina achieved widespread fame with her book Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), illustrated by Dante Gabriel, and posthumously for her poem In the Bleak Midwinter, which was set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906. Christina was later referred to as the ‘Queen of the Pre-Raphaelites’, of which William Michael commented, “this appears to me to be a mere invention après coup; but certain it is that she might without much unreason have been so called, and that no one else could, in the dawning PRB days, have disputed that title with her”.10 Appropriately, the most visible of the group in her brother’s King Arthur and the Weeping Queens (1857) resembles Christina. In reality, the dreamy eroticism that often characterised Pre-Raphaelite works conflicted with Christina’s devoutly religious sensibilities. Her sonnet In An Artist’s Studio (1856) is critical of the obsessive, and objectifying, relationship between artist and model she no doubt witnessed,
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans …
He feeds upon her face by day and night …
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his colleagues referred to attractive young women colloquially as ‘stunners’. Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and Burne-Jones were all involved at one time or another in convoluted liaisons with the various women whom they committed to canvas: Annie Miller (1835-1925), Jane Burden (1839-1914) who married William Morris, Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909), and Maria Zambaco (1843-1914). Indeed, the tumultuous private lives of the principal Pre-Raphaelite artists have proved fertile ground for period drama over the years. The BBC has produced two mini-series about the Pre-Raphaelites, The Love School (1975), based on the novel of the same name by John Hale, and Desperate Romantics (2009), based on the biographical work by Franny Moyle.
The television feature film Dante’s Inferno: The Private Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter (Ken Russell, 1967) focuses on Rossetti’s fraught relationship with his muse Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Eleanor Siddal (1829-62), whom he would eventually marry in 1860 after a nine-year engagement. The painter Walter Howell Deverell (1827-54), who is represented in the exhibition by his gentle interior study The Grey Parrot (c.1852-53), is credited with having ‘discovered’ Siddal, who posed as Viola for his work Twelfth Night (1849-50). Deverell attended the Royal Academy Schools and shared a studio with Rossetti at 17 Red Lion Square in 1851. Following the resignation of Collinson in 1850, Rossetti proposed Deverell for formal membership of the Brotherhood, but no decision was reached, and the young artist died prematurely from Bright’s disease.
After Siddal’s introduction to the group, she featured prominently in their early works, leading her biographer Lucinda Hawksley (ironically a descendent of Dickens) to describe her as the ‘Pre-Raphaelite supermodel’. Holman Hunt used Siddal for A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (1849-50), and Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851). Siddal’s celebrity was assured when she became Ophelia (1852), arguably Millais’ most famous and admired work, after which Rossetti asked her not to pose for other artists. Tutored by Rossetti, Siddal began painting in 1852, and by 1855 Ruskin thought highly enough of her works to purchase them, and paid her an annual retainer of £150 to support her career. Intellectually ambitious, Siddal dabbled in poetry, and tried to carve out an identity of her own as her relationship with the feckless Rossetti became increasingly fractured. Rossetti’s works reflect the changing circumstances of their ultimately tragic entanglement, from initial infatuation through to disillusion, until Siddal’s death from an overdose of laudanum following the birth of their stillborn daughter.
We see a pensive Siddal in Study for St. Catherine (c.1856), and then as St. Cecilia (1857), an illustration for The Palace of Art (1832) in Poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (known as the Moxon Tennyson). Here, Siddal is the patron saint of music seated at the organ, eyes closed she leans back into the arms of (perhaps) an angel; Tennyson himself was said to be puzzled by the interpretation. Siddal is the posthumous inspiration for the NGV’s watercolour Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1867). Rossetti completed an earlier work with the same title in 1855, which was bought by Ruskin (now in the Tate Collection). The composition is divided into three parts; the doomed Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta at the moment of their transgression on the left, Dante and Virgil in the centre regarding the spirits of the lovers on the right, who appear to float through the flames of hell in each others arms. The 1867 rendering focuses on the initial scene, and the text from the Inferno appears on gilded plaques attached to the lower part of the ornate carved frame,
For our delight we read of Lancelot,
How him love thrall’d. Alone we were, and no
Suspicion near us. Oft times by that reading
Our eyes were drawn together, and the hue
Fled from our alter’d cheek. But at one point
Alone we fell. When of that smile we read,
The wished smile, so rapturously kiss’d
By one so deep in love, then he, who ne’er
From me shall separate, at once my lips
All trembling kiss’d. (Canto V, 127-37)
Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), the painter’s father, was Professor of Italian at King’s College London from 1831. The elder Rossetti wrote several commentaries on the works of Dante Alighieri, for whom his son was named. The young artist grew up immersed in Dante’s writings, which provided solace throughout his life. Like his father, Dante Gabriel Rossetti published various volumes of translation including, The Early Italian Poets From Ciullo D’Alcamo to Dante Alighieri (1861). Sadly for his relationships with Siddal, and others, “like Dante, Rossetti sought to realise himself by giving form to love. Like Dante, he was concerned with his own feelings of love, not with the nature of the beloved”.11
A commission (1857-59) to paint murals on the walls of the Oxford Union Debating Hall (now the Library) resulted in a series of Arthurian-themed works. It also ushered in a ‘second incarnation’ of Pre-Raphaelite artists, who worked alongside Dante Gabriel Rossetti on the project, among them Burne-Jones, Morris, Val Prinsep, RA (1838-1904), and Arthur Hughes (1832-1915). In the words of William Michael Rossetti, Hughes was, “one of those who most sympathised with the ideas which guided the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and his style conformed pretty faithfully (not servilely) to theirs; if the organisation had been kept up a little longer, and if new members had ever been admitted… Mr. Hughes would doubtless have been invited to join”.12
Hughes’ Fair Rosamund (1854) depicts Rosamund de Clifford (d.1176), reputedly a great beauty, and the mistress of Henry II (1133-89). Legends dating from the fourteenth century claim that, in order to conceal their trysts, King Henry had a secret garden constructed for Rosamund at the palace of Woodstock, accessible via a maze. Consumed by jealousy, Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, contrived to poison her rival. In Hughes’ rendition, a startled Rosamund abandons her needlework and tries to conceal herself behind an arch in the foliage as Queen Eleanor enters the garden. Blue foxgloves (Digitalis) at the end of the path near the door suggest the likely means by which Eleanor will achieve her malevolent aim.
A number of artists have chosen Keats’ poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819), ‘the beautiful lady without pity’, as their theme, including John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) and Sir Frank Dicksee, PRA (1853-1928). Hughes’ version of 1863 is replete with many of the narrative themes that appealed to the Victorian imagination; chivalry, unfathomable love, unfulfilled desire, and romantic tragedy. A young knight meets, “… a lady in the meads/Full beautiful – a faery’s child/Her hair was long, her foot was light/And her eyes were wild”. He places her atop his horse and she guides him through the forest to “her Elfin grot”. So transfixed is he by the benignly beautiful face of this femme fatale, the knight fails to see the ghostly chorus of her previous victims trailing in their wake. After falling asleep in her bower, the knight awakens to find himself ensnared, “On the cold hill’s side/And this is why I sojourn here/Alone and palely loitering”.
Arthur Hughes was the uncle and mentor of Edward Robert Hughes, RWS (1851-1914), whose artistic ambitions he encouraged. Hughes lived with his uncle for a time in the 1860s, bringing him into the Pre-Raphaelite’s orbit; indeed, he is sometimes referred to as ‘the last Pre-Raphaelite’. The younger Hughes acted as the principal studio assistant to the elderly and increasingly infirm Holman Hunt, whose eyesight was failing; Hughes’ obituary in The Times would describe him as the senior artist’s ‘son in art’. Hughes helped Hunt to complete a number of later works including the final, life-size version of his influential religious painting The Light of the World (1900-04), and The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905), the preliminary drawing (1850) for which, and the later plate (1857) for the Moxon Tennyson, are included here.
The delightful work The Princess Out Of School (c.1901) was last exhibited as part of the NGV’s British Watercolours: The Age of Splendour, 1760-1900 (2011-12). Free of her lessons, the young protagonist has disappeared into the glade, where we find her watching something out of frame in the nearby pond. Although she has discarded her ermine-trimmed silk hat, her fine white lawn gown with yellow ribbons, and bronze surcoat stamped with stylised burgundy floral motifs, clearly denote her status. The warm golden hue surrounding the Princess is in harmony with the flowers and tangled vines nearby, leading a critic for Literature (1897-1902) to comment, “We are simply content to admire Mr. Hughes’ picture. The subject is well chosen without being all-absorbing; it is drawn with exquisite care; the colour-scheme is rich, harmonious and well balanced” (4 May, 1901).
This work bears striking similarities to a number of those by Arthur Hughes in overseas collections. The Rift Within The Lute (1861-62), held by Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery, uses Hughes’ wife Tryphena Foord as the model. Wearing an opulent draped costume, she is lying in a similar setting; a gentle grassy bank covered in wildflowers adjacent to a body of water. In another work, The Compleat Angler (c.1884), Hughes has updated his model’s ensemble to contemporary fashion, and she is seen reading by the riverbank while waiting to catch a fish on her rod. Hughes (the elder) depicted various of his models lying full-length on the ground so that they filled the picture space, and he was particularly fond of idealised woodland settings. Hughes’ intensely accurate depiction of nature, coupled with his use of rich and glowing colours, increased the emotional intensity of the painting; stylistic traits his nephew learnt well, and which we see faithfully echoed in The Princess.
From the time he spotted her in the Strand in 1865, Dante Gabriel Rossetti worked extensively with model Alexa Wilding (c.1845/48-84), seen here in the drawings Alexa Wilding (1865) and La Mandolinata (1869). Theirs seems to have been a platonic relationship, and perhaps this accounts for the reason Wilding sat for more of Rossetti’s finished works than any of his previous models. After criticism of his oil painting Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), for which Christina modelled, Rossetti retreated from exhibiting his works publicly. Following his emotional breakdown in 1872, he became increasingly reclusive. By 1880, when Rossetti met (Sir Thomas Henry) Hall Caine (1853-1931), who became his last secretary, he was clearly impatient with being reminded of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. “As for all that prattle about Pre-Raphaelitism, I confess to you I am weary of it, and long have been”, Rossetti sniffed. “Why should we go on talking about the visionary vanities of half a dozen boys? What you call the movement was serious enough, but the banding together under that title was all a joke”.13
Posterity has conspired to disagree with Rossetti’s jaded assessment. The Brotherhood, as a dedicated group of likeminded artists sharing ideas, adhering to a series of precepts, and meeting regularly, had ceased by 1853. Upon Millais’ election as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy later the same year, Rossetti wrote to his sister Christina, “So now the whole Round Table is dissolved”. Diverging views, differing levels of professional success, and estrangements led to the collapse of the personal affinities that had once served to unite the group. The devoted chronicler of Pre-Raphaelite exploits, William Michael Rossetti, was thorough to the last, “It is a sad and indeed a humiliating reflection that, after the early days of camaraderie and of genuine brotherliness had run their course, followed by a less brief period of amity and goodwill, keen antipathies severed the quondam PRBs”.14
Essentially, the buoyant, cocky lads grew up. The self-conscious and melancholy air they cultivated in their earlier paintings and poetry gave way to experience; the bitterness of thwarted aspirations, despondency, compromise, and the burden of sorrow. Despite that, the ideas the Pre-Raphaelites espoused concerning the role and responsibility of the artist in a changing world, and their spirited stance against institutional conformity in the creative arts, continues to resonate many generations later. Their holistic approach to art, as something that may encompass various other disciplines and forms of expression, was an innovation we now take for granted. After the first flush of rebellious expression, the Pre-Raphaelites did not solidify as a ‘movement’ and go on, as Ruskin suggested, to “found a new and noble school”. The emphasis they placed on individuality, coupled with a respect for spiritual and artistic freedom, may have ultimately driven the Brotherhood apart, but it has also prevented their legacy from growing moribund. The resplendent, unconventional, and sometimes confronting work Pre-Raphaelitism produced has lost none of its potency, nor its capacity to beguile, enthrall, and captivate. Resolutely modern, after all these years.
Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, NGV (International), 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne (VIC) until 12 July 2015 – ngv.vic.gov.au All works, Collection National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
FOOTNOTES 1 Angela Thirwell, William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis, Yale University Press, London, 2003, p.183. 2 William Michael Rossetti, The Pre-Raphaelites and Their World: A Personal View, From ‘Some Reminiscences’ and Other Writings of William Michael Rossetti, (ed. Angela Thirwell), The Folio Society, London, 1995, p.34. 3 William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Vol.1, Macmillan and Co, London, 1905, p.135-37. 4 Charles Dickens. “Old Lamps for New Ones” Household Words, No. 12, 15 June, 1850, p.265-66. 5 Inga Bryden (Ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites: Writings and Sources Vol.3, Routledge/Thoemmes Press, London, (1998) 2000, p. 49, 78-79. 6 Admiral Sir William Milbourne James (ed.), The Order of Release: The Story of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais. Told for the First Time in Their Unpublished Letters, John Murray, London, 1947, p. 220. 7 Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010, p.43. 8 Robert L. Herbert (Ed.), The Art Criticism Of John Ruskin, Da Capo Press, New York, 1964, p.403. 9 Dinah Roe (Ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin, Penguin, London, 2010, p.xxxii-xxxiii. 10 William Michael Rossetti, op cit, p.87. 11 Renée Free, “Love & Death: Dante Alighieri and Dante Gabriel Rossetti”, in Angus Trumble (Ed.), Love and Death: Art In the Age of Queen Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2001, p.55. 12 William Michael Rossetti, op cit, p.99. 13 Ibid, p.46. 14 Ibid, p.92.
AUTHORS NOTE I am most appreciative of the generous assistance provided by Victoria Osborne, Curator of Fine Art at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery regarding the work of Arthur and Edward Robert Hughes. Her exhibition, Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Edward Robert Hughes, the first to be dedicated to Hughes and his work, will be held there 17 October, 2015-14 February, 2016 – birminghammuseums.org.uk/bmag
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.