Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian avant-garde @ Tate Britain

This is a stunning and informative and hugely rewarding exhibition. The sheer number of paintings and sculptures is overwhelming. And seeing so many greatest hits of English art in one experience is pure pleasure.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896) founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB as they mysteriously signed their earliest paintings) in London in September 1848, i.e. when they were 21, 20 and 19 years old.

They were soon joined by four others, art critics William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) and Frederic George Stephens (1828-1907), painter James Collinson (1825-1881) and sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892).

They chose the name Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to express their rejection of all art from the time of Raphael (1510s and 20s) and after, which they considered mannered, artificial and untruthful. They turned for inspiration to the more archaic western art before Raphael which they considered to be closer to nature, in subject matter and technique.

In making the case for the PRB to be an avant-garde movement, the curators lay out reasons why their art was so strikingly different from the previous generations’:

  • They rejected Kings and Queens and classical myths as subject matter, preferring intimate, psychologically charged moments, from medieval legends or Shakespeare
  • Instead of chiaroscuro, the use of shadows and gloom, all early PRB paintings take place in vivid sunlight which highlights every detail of the painting
  • In line with Piero della Francesca and other early Renaissance painters, perspective isn’t fully developed so that figures in different planes often seem bunched up together, as in the early masterpiece by Millais, ‘Isabella’.

Isabella by John Everett Millais

  • The combination of the above elements means the figures are defined not so much by their place in the picture plane as by outlines, almost as if cartoons
  • The PRBs painted in actual outdoor locations (they pioneered plein air painting 15 years before the Impressionists). Thus in Millais’ famous Ophelia, the background was painted by the small river Hogsmill near Ewell. Holman Hunt spent six months painting Our English Coasts (1852) on location at the cliffs at Fairlight, near Hastings.
  • Above all they were searching for Truth in Art:

‘Absolute and uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from  nature only. Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every minute accessory is painted in the same manner.’

These are the words of John Ruskin, already a formidable critic of Art and Society in the 1850s.

‘Our English Coasts’ (1852)

I learned that:

  1. The Pre-Raphaelites’ rise to prominence in the 1850s coincided with that of a new class, the industrial manufacturers of the Midlands. This was the readership for the novels of Dickens, Eliot, the Brontes, Gaskell. They thrived on psychological detail of the real world around them, rather than remote kings and queens, and so they often became the main sponsors and purchasers of PRB works. For example, Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience was commissioned by Thomas Fairbairn, a Manchester industrialist and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites who paid Hunt 350 guineas for it. Our English Coasts was commissioned by Charles Maud.
  2. The brightness, the hyper-realism of so many PRB paintings was achieved because – whereas the Royal Academy taught that canvases should be primed with black or dark paint on which the artist then built up an image whose default setting was a gloomy chiaroscuro, the PRBs primed their canvases with zinc white. Therefore, bright light was the default setting, a light which encouraged the limning in of every available detail.

Pre-raphaelitism is in two parts For the first time I understood that the movement is in two parts:

  • Part one, all the works from 1848 into the 1860s, followed the rules set above.
  • Part two is inaugurated in the mid-60s by Rossetti abandoning all the rules and painting loads of portraits of strong-chinned, pouting-lipped, orange-haired ‘stunners’, against vague and misty backgrounds. The clothes are sumptuous amid a clutter of luxury items imported from all over the burgeoning British Empire. Whereas, in the first period, detail is in the paintings to convince of the physical truth, truth to nature, in the second period the sumptuous detail is decorative, part of the fascination with pattern and decoration which was becoming more fashionable, the drift towards Aestheticism and Art for Art’s Sake. Even the press realised the change. In 1864 the Art Journal wrote:

It is surprising, as it is satisfactory, to see how completely the ultra and more repellent forms of the Pre-Raphaelite school have died out. This slavish school has had its day.

The phrase ‘Art for Art’s sake’ first appeared in 1868, in a Walter Pater review of a volume of William Morris poetry. In their growing interest in design for design’s sake, the PRBs became subsumed in the broader Aesthetic Movement which was gathering pace throughout the 1870s.

The founding PRB, Rossetti, died young (53) in 1882 and in its later rooms the exhibition focuses increasingly on two younger artists who weren’t part of the original Brotherhood, Burne-Jones and Morris.

Friends since Oxford this pair collaborated closely on designing fabrics, furniture, tapestries and books. The penultimate room takes the theme of ‘Paradise’ and contains wonderful wall hangings, stained glass, a highly decorated antique bed Morris had in his Red House in Bexley, Morris’s political pamphlets, all dominated by, drenched in, decorated with, medieval themes. Morris died in 1896, the year he published his masterwork, the illustrated works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’. In the same year the boy wonder and founding PRB, Millais, passed away.

The Arming and Departure of the Knights of the Round Table on the Quest for the Holy Grail, designed by Burne-Jones, woven by Morris

The final room is dominated by vast Burne-Jones paintings, thronged by his familiar tall, grey-eyed, blank-faced women, strange, remote and haunting. B-J never shared the incisive hyper-realism of the 1850s PRBs. He died in 1898.

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris on the Victorian Web website

The final exhibit in the show does return to its roots, being Holman Hunt’s huge Lady of Shallott, which he worked on until 1905. It is a masterpiece of light and a plethora of hyper-real detail, classically PRB in its pseud0-medieval, Tennysonian medievalism. But just two years later, and in a different artistic and cultural universe, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The PRB moment was long, long over, and the entire movement would go into an eclipse which lasted for generations…

Selection of pre-Raphaelite images on the University of Pittsburgh website

Politics? All books and articles about the PRBs emphasise their political views, their commitment to contemporary politics and social themes, as if these matched the radicalism of their art and of their free-spirited love lives. And yet there’s little evidence for it. Ford Maddox Brown’s Work (1865) and The Last of England (1855), Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853)  are rare excursions into PRBs depicting contemporary life.

In the first phase the subject matter is scenes of rural life or Jesus’s life or medieval legend. In the second phase it’s Art for Art’s sake, it’s Rossetti stunners and Burne-Jones ladies and a lot more Arthurian legend. In neither phase did they address the realities of Victorian life which pressed harder and harder on their contemporaries. That was left to completely different artists like William Powell Frith, Augustus Egg and Luke Fildes.

Still, it’s churlish to deny the achievement of these men. Whether earlier, pure PRB, or later art-for-arts-sake work, the quality of paintings on display in this exhibition is amazing, inspiring and life-enhancing.

Afterlives

Millais the boy wonder, takes Ruskin’s wife, Effie, away from him, has 8 children and, in need of money, never again devotes as much time to a single painting as he did with Ophelia, declining into chocolate box sentimentality e.g. Bubbles.

Rossetti, the melodramatic Italian, in the 1860s creates the later PBR look of the ‘stunner’ with pouting lips, then dies fairly young (53), broken by alcohol, laudanum and bad dreams of how he mistreated his model-wife, Lizzie Siddel.

Holman Hunt stays truest to the idea of hyper-real detail in the service of truth; the ‘High Priest’ of the movement because of his genuine religious faith, he made several trips to the Holy Land to paint scenes from Jesus’ life and the Old Testament. I’m not sure I like it, but one of the most striking and certainly one of the biggest paintings at the exhibition is The Shadow of Death. Right to the end he can’t paint teeth without making them look like bad dentures.

The Shadow of Death (1873) by William Holman Hunt

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1 Comment

  1. Judith Hooley

     /  October 6, 2012

    enjoyed review (+ show!) & interested to see you reproduce Lady of Shalott- that was the one that made biggest impression on me. (Did you note 2 huge & appalling Holman H’s – kitsch kids’ picnic, + hindu-style romping rolypoly spirit babies surrounding baby Jesus with bizarre ginger afro (Triumph of the Innocents).
    Looking forward to yr reviews of Munch + Turner shortlist- I liked Eliz Price but not the other 3 Judith

    Reply

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