Edward Burne-Jones @ Tate Britain

One aspect of being a successful artist is establishing a look, a style, a brand. This exhibition, the first devoted to Burne-Jones at Tate Britain since 1933, brings together over 150 objects including some of his greatest paintings, a roomful of drawings, wall-sized tapestries, even a grand piano he decorated – which all go to prove that he established the ‘Burne-Jones look’ early on, and then stuck to it.

The Briar Wood (1874-8) by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

The Briar Wood (1874-8) Picture one in the Briar Rose series, by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

People sleeping and dreaming are his subjects. Even when supposedly awake, all his figures look as if they’re sleep-walking through the situations he places them in.

The figures are tall, statuesque, rather elongated. If nude, they have beautifully defined musculature, if clothed the men, in particular, are often wearing fascinatingly detailed armour, while the women wear long gowns whose convoluted folds he captures with shimmering sensuality.

This painting, from a series depicting the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, shows all these features – human figures elongated, the (admittedly delicate but well-defined) musculature of the nude woman, and the fascinating style of armour Perseus is wearing, like no armour any real medieval warrior ever wore, almost cyber-punk in its fetishistic detail.

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Many exhibitions I’ve been to at Tate Britain set out to prove a thesis, but this show is a return to an older, more traditional type of curating, which sets out simply to explain and delight.

Serena Thirkell

I recommend buying the audioguide. It has four voices on it – 1. the exhibition curator Alison Smith2. an art scholar who’s a long-standing fan of Burne-Jones but whose name I didn’t get. 3. the novelist Tracey Chevalier. But the most interesting one is the voice of 4. Burne-Jones’s great, great, grand-daughter, Serena Thirkell. Serena’s memories are fascinating of growing up in a house where some of these famous paintings hung in the hall or dining room, and how she and the other small children were attracted, frightened and fascinated by them.

I particularly liked her take on the amazingly sumptuous painting, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. To the adult eye there are all kinds of things going on in it, from the (typically strange) armour of the king to the (typically blank) expression on the beggar maid’s face, to the heads-together pose of the two figures at the balustrade – obviously inspired by pre-Raphael Renaissance paintings – and ditto the carefully delineated leaves of the olive branches poking in from the left.

But what Serena remembered was the avenues of escape from the picture, the way she and her little friends could imagine scampering up the stairs to the gallery, and then through the window into the lovely Italian landscape you can glimpse outside. And how this sense of escape was balanced by the sense of threat created at the other end of the painting – caused by the narrowing, claustrophobic steps going down, past the king’s knees and feet, down, down towards… what scary darkness?

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

Her memories remind the listener that you don’t always have to respond to art with sophisticated theories or abrasive gender politics. Sometimes you can let yourself be swept off your feet to fairyland. Few artists devoted as much energy to creating that effect as Burne-Jones.

Seven rooms

The exhibition is arranged into seven rooms:

  1. 1856-1870 Apprentice to Master
  2. Burne-Jones as a draughtsman
  3. 1877-98 Exhibition paintings
  4. Portraits
  5. The series paintings – The Perseus series
  6. The series paintings – The Briar Rose
  7. Burne-Jones as a designer

Unusually, Burne-Jones didn’t attend art school at all. He began studying theology at university, before packing it in and essentially teaching himself art.

His theological knowledge and the iconography of Christianity i.e. the figurative depiction of key moments – the Annunciation, various saints though not, tellingly, the Crucifixion itself – stayed with him for the rest of his career.

Later in life Burne-Jones collaborated on designing stained glass windows for churches, which were produced in the factory of his close friend, William Morris. It’s estimated that he produced the designs for over 650 stained glass windows, which is why many of the patterns and designs in the final room, ‘Burne-Jones as designer’, seem so familiar. Anyone who visits English parish churches will have been exposed to his pervasive influence.

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two shows how much effort Burne-Jones put into practicing drawing and sketching, especially on the four big trips he made to Italy during the 1870s, where he copied and studied extensively from the Renaissance Old Masters. Some of the sketches are breath-taking – of hands in different poses, or feet, the elaborate depictions of the folds of dresses, not to mention a standout sketch of a flowering plant and a page of sketches of birds. What an eye, what a hand!

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

This room also contains some surprisingly comic insights into his private life. Burne-Jones enjoyed a long friendship with the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and the exhibition shows some of the comic cartoons he included in his letters to her. He depicts himself in these as a skinny, long-bearded, mournful man, which creates an irresistibly comic effect when placed next to the caricatures of his bosom buddy, the big, super-energetic, wild-haired William Morris. I laughed out loud at the cartoon he drew of himself falling asleep in a chair while Morris passionately declaims one of his interminable epic poems.

Room three is amazing – full of massive ‘exhibition’ paintings, made to stun his contemporaries and sell to rich patrons. Love Amid the Ruins, The Beguiling of Merlin, The Golden Stairs, Laus Veneris, The Wheel of Fortune and half a dozen other enormous, strange, haunting, remote, dreamy images, pregnant with meaning, in which movement isn’t really movement at all.

Reminiscent, it occurred to me, of Botticelli whose Spring or Birth of Venus both show supposedly dynamic images in which, in fact, nothing is really moving.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

Perseus

But the real Burne-Jones’ fan will be transported to heaven by rooms five and six. These recreate in their entirety the two most important series of paintings which Burne-Jones created. Room five contains the ten paintings he created to depict the Greek myth of Perseus between 1875 and 1885. The original idea was to hang ten oil paintings, interspersed with four relief panels on oak wood, all carefully arranged and lit so as to transport you into a mythic world of the imagination.

Only four of the planned ten were worked up into finished oil paintings (including The Doom Fulfilled, shown above) and the curators have hung these four, along with cartoons (actual size preparatory works) of the other six, plus one completed oak relief, placing them all in order so you can follow Burne-Jones’s huge and powerful depiction of the story through in order.

It’s a great bit of curating, which really works. Above all it shows you how muted, dulled and misty his palette was. And makes you realise this was always his style.

The Laus Veneris, which is used as a poster for the show, is in fact quite unrepresentative of most of the other paintings here, in its use of bright orange for Venus’s dress. Even in the first room of early works, his faces are softened and blurred, the colours are dark and misty. As the years passed he perfected the technique of using colour, but making all the colours submit to the same muted tonality.

The briar rose

A kind of silvery blue-black dominates the Perseus series and helps them to cohere, tonally. Whereas, when you step into room six, you are enveloped in the Briar Rose series, four massive paintings depicting the early parts of the Sleeping Beauty fairy story, where a kind of muddy brown dominates and unites the compositions.

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. the Faringdon Collection Trust

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

There are scores of incidental pleasures to be had along the way, noticing how the sketched birds are incorporated into later paintings, spotting the influence of Michelangelo in the more muscular figures, or of Mantegna in some of the amazingly detailed swirling gowns.

The room of portraits caters to people who like gossip about artists, featuring as it does portraits of his daughter Margaret, his long-suffering wife Georgiana, several of the lady friends with whom he enjoyed passionate friendships (Amy Gaskell and Lady Windsor) his longstanding patron, William Graham, and so on, with a bit of juicy gossip behind each one.

Burne-Jones and European symbolism

But what interested me more was the link the exhibition helps you to make between later Burne-Jones and the European Symbolist painters of the 1880s and 1890s. The subject matter of both is generally the figurative depictions of human beings – realistic, easy to decode and relate to.

And yet stylised in powerful ways which seem charged with mysterious meanings. Especially all those women with the same faces, the same large eyes, the same vacant stare, the same elongated bodies draped, folded, bent in positions of sleep and languor – compositions pregnant with a meaning just beyond the mind’s grasp.

Some of the unfinished Perseus series, especially the one about Perseus’ encounter with Atlas, could be by a European Symbolist, transmuting what ought to be the straightforward telling of a well-known myth into something altogether new and haunting. The figures inside the globe Atlas is holding are depictions of the signs of the Zodiac, and yet they are the Zodiac symbols come to life and seeming to interact in strange and unknowable ways…

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872) Southampton City Art Gallery

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872), a peculiarly Symbolist work. Southampton City Art Gallery

Some people don’t like Burne-Jones’s big-eyed damsels, or jewelled dreamscapes. They see his entire visions as a creative dead end which helped maintain a kind of anti-modern, British philistinism right up to the end of the 19th century and beyond, while, throughout this period, the French were busy inventing modern art just 50 miles across the Channel.

But it is now 2018. We are well into post-post-modern art, into the era when the internet makes everything available to everyone, when there are no longer movements with fierce adherents and bitter opponents. The stakes are no longer so high or so intense. We can like whatever we want to. I thought this was an absolutely wonderful exhibition – the room of the Sleeping Beauty panels is worth the admission price alone.

The promotional video

This shaky handheld video gives you a good sense of what the show is like.


Related links

Newspaper reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Symbolist Art by Edward Lucie-Smith (1972)

Symbolist art does not depict nature as it actually exists, but brings together various impressions received by the mind of the artist, to create a new and different world, governed by its own subjective mood. (p.151)

Although this book is 45 years-old, I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop to compare and contrast with Michael Gibson’s account of Symbolism. Gibson’s massive books is packed with brilliant full-colour reproductions but, as I read it, I did increasingly find myself wondering where ‘Symbolism’ ended and where the simply fantastic or morbid or sensationalist began. So I read this book to further explore whether Symbolism was really a movement in a narrow definable way – or is just the word given to a kind of mood or feeling of other-worldliness apparent in a huge range of artists between about 1880 and 1910.

The World of Art series

Symbolist Art is a typical product of Thames and Hudson’s renowned ‘World of Art series’ in that, although there are 185 illustrations, only 24 of them are in colour. So you’re not buying it for the pictures, which can be better seen, in full colour, in numerous other books (or online); you’re buying it for the text.

Edward Lucie-Smith

Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 and is still alive (aged 84). Public school, Oxford, the RAF during the war, then freelance poet, art critic, essayist, author and curator, he has written over 100 books. His book comes over as significantly more learned and informative than Gibson’s.

Symbolism in Renaissance painting

He starts with a basic consideration of symbols in art starting back in the Renaissance. Renaissance art is packed with symbols – classical gods and goddesses are accompanied by their attributes, kings and queens are shown in allegorical paintings accompanied by war or peace or the triumph of the arts and so on.

To get the most out of Renaissance art you undoubtedly have to have a good eye for its religious, political and cultural symbolism. For example, spot the symbolism in this masterpiece by Rubens.

(In this picture the portrait of Marie de’ Medici – daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany – is being presented to Henry IV, the king of France, and her future husband. The gods of marriage and love – Hymen and Amor (Cupid), to the left and right – hover in midair. From up in heaven the king and queen of the gods, Jupiter and Juno, look down in approval. Jupiter’s symbol, the eagle of war, clutching lightning bolts in his talons, is literally being squeezed out of the picture, to the left, while Juno’s symbols, the peacocks of love and peace strut (the male) and look down at the scene of love (the female). A pink ribbon symbolising their marriage binds them together. The chariot the peahen sits in bears a gold relief on the front showing Cupid standing on/triumphing over (another) eagle, and holding a garland (symbol of marriage). Behind Henry stands the personification of France, wearing French blue silk embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys (the coat of arms of the French monarchy). She is reassuring Henry that it is a good match for the nation. The burning town in the distance and the dark clouds to the left of the picture, beneath the eagle, symbolise War, as do the helmet and shield at the foot of the painting. These must all be abandoned so that Henry can concentrate on the lighter, feminine arts of peace, subtly emphasised by the light source for the whole scene coming from the right, the side of the Future, peace and harmony.)

Lucie-Smith draws the distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ symbolism.

Open symbolism is the use of publicly available and traditional imagery. All of the symbolism in the Rubens picture is ‘open’ in the sense that any educated person could spot it.

Closed symbolism refers to ‘secret’ knowledge, available only to ‘initiates’. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art features numerous painters who included closed symbolism in their works: some has been investigated and explicated by later scholars; some remains obscure to this day.

Watteau

In other words, symbolism as a strategy or technique, is absolutely intrinsic to the Western artistic tradition.

What Lucie-Smith brings out is the strand of artists over the past few hundred years who brought something extra to the idea: who incorporated open symbolism or straightforward allegory (where x stands for y, where, for example, an hourglass stands for ‘Time’), but something else as well.

He takes an example from the wonderful Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). On the face of it Watteau was painting fashionable fête galantes for the French aristocracy, scenes of dressing up and carefree flirtations in an idealised classical setting, thus:

Yet (apart from the fabulous rhythmic compositions, the draughtsmanship of the figures, the wonderful use of colour) what makes Watteau ‘magical’ is the sense he achieves of a deeper meaning which somehow diffuses a mysterious influence around itself. According to Lucie-Smith, Watteau:

had already abandoned conventional allegory in favour of a use of symbolism which was more pervasive, more powerful and more mysterious. (p.21)

Something else is conveyed above and beyond the ostensible subject and its over symbolism. Somehow it achieves a sense of mystery.

The Romantic roots of Symbolism

There follows a chapter about Romanticism, a movement which I, personally, find boring, maybe because I’ve read too much about it and seen too many times the same old paintings by Fuseli (The Nightmare), Goya (The sleep of reason produces monsters) or Caspar David Friedrich (The Cross in the mountains).

Lucie-Smith’s purpose is to show that ‘Romanticism’ is (quite obviously) the godfather to modern Symbolism – in its use of obscure but meaningful images, nightmares and dreams, scary women and looming monsters – in the use of pseudo-religious imagery which has lost its literal meaning but acquired a spooky, Gothic, purely imaginative resonance.

Victorian symbolists

The next chapter looks at symbolist currents in British art during the 19th century, starting with the self-taught mythomane, William Blake. It then moves on to consider the group of artists who claimed to be his followers and called themselves ‘the Ancients’, including Edward Calvert and the wonderful Samuel Palmer, with his strange visionary depictions of rural Kent (Coming from Evening Church).

Then we arrive at the pre-Raphaelites. Lucie-Smith identifies Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the most ‘symbolist’ of these young idealistic painters, not least because his technique was quite limited. Rossetti wasn’t very good at perspective or realistic settings and so his mature paintings often have a vague, misty background which helps to emphasise the ‘timeless other-worldliness’ of the main subject (generally cupid-lipped, horse-necked ‘stunners’ [as the lads used to call them] as in Astarte Syriaca).

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Burne-Jones and Watts

Lucie-Smith credits Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) with developing the medieval and dream-like elements of pre-Raphaelitism to their fullest extent and in so doing creating a stream of late works devoted to expressionless women moving through heavily meaningful landscapes.

Burne-Jones exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where he won a first-class medal. (Intriguing to think the Impressionists were almost entirely excluded from this show and forced to mount an exhibition at the nearby Café Volpini – as described in in Belinda Thompson’s book about the Post-Impressionists.)

French symbolist artists were well aware of Burne-Jones’s work. But the most overtly ‘symbolist’ of the late Victorian artists was George Frederick Watts. He was quite clear about his intentions and his own words give quite a good summary of the symbolist impulse:

I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity. (quoted page 47)

His many contemporary fans and supporters considered Watts a ‘seer’ and suggested his work be hung in a temple not a gallery (an ambition which sort of came true with the dedication of his final home and studio in the village of Compton, Surrey, to his work, a venue you can now visit – the Watts Gallery).

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

‘The dweller of the innermost’ is obviously someone important, and something very meaningful is going on in this painting – but who? and what?

Symbolism

All this background is covered in the first 50 pages of this 220-page book in order to get us to the Symbolist movement proper.

Symbolism in the narrow sense was a literary movement, embodied in the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in the 1870s and 1880s. They used real world images but set in shimmering, vague and allusive contexts. By the late 1880s this kind of literary worldview overlapped strongly with a revival of a so-called ‘decadent’ style, in both writing and painting. It was largely to distinguish between the two outlooks that the minor poet Jean Moréas in 1886 wrote the essay which introduced the term ‘symbolist’ and ‘symbolism’.

According to Moréas, both symbolism and decadence turned away from the oppressive mundaneness of the everyday bourgeois world but whereas the symbolists emphasized dreams and ideals, the Decadents cultivated heavily ornamented or hermetic styles and morbid subject matter.

Lucie-Smith asserts that the first phase of symbolism lasted from Moréas’s 1886 essay until he himself rejected the name in 1891. Its central figure was the poet Mallarmé. Lucie-Smith lists the qualities of Mallarmé’s poetry, and points out how they can also be found in the symbolist painters of the day:

  • deliberate ambiguity
  • hermeticism (i.e. closed to easy interpretation)
  • use of the symbol as catalyst i.e. to prompt a reaction in the soul of the beholder
  • the idea that art exists in a world separate and apart from the everyday one
  • synthesis not analysis i.e. while the Impressionists analysed light and its effects, the symbolists brought together elements of the real world – from tradition, myth and legends – into strange and new combinations or syntheses

An important element of synthesis was not only the unexpected combination of real-world elements, but the notion that all the arts could and should borrow from each other. Symbolism always hovered around the idea of a ‘total work of art’ which combines music, dance, art, even smells and touches. Everyone in the 1880s was entranced by Wagner’s massive operas which aspired to just this condition of being Gesamtkunstwerks or ‘total works of art’. The idea was very powerful and lingered through to the First World War – the Russian composer Scriabin composed works deliberately designed to evoke colourful fantasias and artists like Wassily Kandinsky in the 1900s theories about the closeness of painting and music.

Here’s a Symbolist depiction of the hero of one of Wagner’s massive operas, the pure and holy knight Parsifal.

Gustave Moreau (1826-98)

Moreau is the painter most associated with the first phase of Symbolism. He developed an ornate jewel-studded style of treating subjects from the Bible or classical legend.

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Reviewing the Salon of 1880, the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans singled out Moreau’s work for being mysterious and disturbing. Four years later in his classic novel A Rebours, which describes a decadent aristocrat who retires to his country house to cultivate sensual pleasures and experiences, Huysmans singled out Moreau as the patron painter of his decadent lifestyle, using a lexicon of late-19th century decadent terms: Moreau’s art is ‘disquieting… sinister… sorrowful symbols of superhuman perversities’ and so on.

Of his own painting Jupiter and Semele, Moreau wrote:

It is an ascent towards superior spheres, a rising up of superior beings towards the Divine – terrestrial death and apotheosis in Immortality. The great Mystery completes itself, the whole of nature is impregnated with the ideal and the divine, everything is transformed. (quoted page 66)

That gives you a strong sense of Symbolist rhetoric.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Huysmans also includes Redon in his short list of artists favoured in the country sensorium of his decadent hero, Des Esseintes. Redon seems to me by far the more symbolist painter of the two, and the polar opposite of Moreau. Whereas Moreau paints relatively conventional mythical subjects in a super-detail-encrusted fashion, Redon strips away all detail to portray the subject in a genuinely mysterious and allusive simplicity.

Redon wrote of his own work:

The sense of mystery is a matter of being all the time amid the equivocal, in double and triple aspects, and hints of aspects (images within images), forms which are coming to birth according to the state of mind of the observer. (quoted page 76)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98)

Puvis wanted to revive the academic tradition and his compositions of figures in landscapes in one way hearken back to the posed landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1661). But he did so in a strange dreamlike way which pointed forward, towards the semi-abstraction of Cézanne. He wrote to a friend that he preferred low skies, solitary plains, bad weather – a temperament which resulted in melancholy often mysterious paintings.

I don’t like Puvis because of what I take to be his rather ropey draughtsmanship – his figures seem angular and uncomfortable, especially the faces.

Eugène Carrière (1849-1906)

Lucie-Smith doesn’t like Carrière much because he developed one subject – family members, especially mother and baby – and painted them over and over again, in a very distinctive way, as if seen through a thick brown mist. I can see how this would quickly grow tiresome, but in brief selections Carriere comes over as a powerful element of the symbolist scene.

At about this point in the book it struck me that a quick way of distinguishing between post-Impressionist and Symbolist painters is that the former were experimenting with ways of depicting reality, whereas the latter are experimenting with ways to try and depict what lies behind reality. Of the former, contemporary critics asked, ‘What is it meant to be depicting?’, of the latter they would ask, ‘I can see what it’s depicting – but what does it mean?’

Paul Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school

Gauguin the post-Impressionist is included? Yes, because in the several summers he spent painting at Pont-Aven in Brittany, Gauguin attracted young disciples who both inspired him to become more abstract and ‘primitive’, but also came back to Paris to spread his influence.

The young Paul Sérusier organised a group of like-minded young artists at the private art school of Rodolphe Julian, which included Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis – and christened them the ‘Nabis’ (Hebrew for ‘prophets’). Without really intending to, Gauguin found himself being lauded as a prophet to the Symbolists. When he set off for the Pacific he was given a going-away party by the Symbolists, presided over by Mallarmé himself.

Here’s a work from Gauguin’s South Sea period.

Lucie-Smith says it is symbolist work because it has mystery, ambiguity and is clearly an invitation to seek some deeper meaning lying beneath the surface. Well, yes… I find several works by other Nabis more convincingly symbolist:

Lucie-Smith devotes a chapter to the Salon of the Rose+Cross founded by Joséphin Péladan in 1892, which held a series of six exhibitions from 1892 to 1897 at which they invited Symbolist painters to exhibit. Featured artists included Arnold Böcklin, Fernand Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler, Jan Toorop, Gaetano Previati, Jean Delville, Carlos Schwabe and Charles Filiger.

The Salon combined rituals and ideas from Medieval Rosicrucianism with elements of Kabbala and other aspects of esoteric lore. Charming and distracting though much of this arcane knowledge may be to devotees, it is also, at bottom, a profoundly useless waste of time and intellect. However, the Salon of the Rose+Cross’s practical impact was to bring together and promote a wide range of painters who shared the symbolist mindset:

More impressive are Soul of the Forest by Edgar Maxence (1898) and:

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)

An illustrator who created line drawings in black ink, Beardley’s big breakthrough came in 1894 when Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, was published in a version with Beardsley’s woodcuts and caused a succès de scandale. Well aware of fashionable taste, Beardsley tackled favourite Symbolist themes like the medieval dreamworld of King Arthur, the femme fatale, Wagner’s operas, and pretty risqué pornography, as in his illustrations to the classic play, Lysistrata.

Beardsley’s clarity of line and hard-edged arabesques make him one of the founders of Art Nouveau.

Symbolists in other countries

This summary only takes us up to half way through the book which beings to risk – like Gibson’s book – turning into simply a list of relevant painters with a paragraph or so on each.

Part of this is because Symbolism was so thoroughly international a style, with offshoots all across Europe. Lucie-Smith makes the point that it was a little like the Mannerism of the end of the 16th century – the product of a unified and homogenous culture, and of a social and artistic élite determined to emphasise the gap between itself – with all its sensitivity and refinement – and the ghastly mob, with its crude newspapers and penny-dreadful entertainments.

Later chapters describe the Symbolist artists of America, Holland (Jan Toorop, Johan Thorn Prikker),  Russia (Diaghilev, Bakst and the World of Art circle), Italy (Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati), Czechoslovakia (Franz Kupka), Germany-Switzerland (Arnold Böckin, Max Klinger, Otto Greiner, Alfred Kubin, Ferdinand Hodler, Franz von Stuck).

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

I particularly liked:

The books ends with extended sections devoted to James Ensor, Edvard Munch (who Lucie-Smith considers the most avant-garde painter working anywhere in the mid-1890s) and Gustav Klimt.

Modernists who had symbolist phases

Like Gibson, Lucie-Smith points out that a number of the great Modernists first passed through identifiable symbolist phases before finding their final styles.

Two great examples are Wassily Kandinsky, whose pre-abstract paintings are admittedly influenced by Fauve and Divisionist techniques but as, Lucie-Smith points out, depict undeniably Arthurian and medieval subject matter, and so qualify for the symbolist team.

The other is Piet Mondrian, the Dutchman nowadays known for his black-lined grids of white squares and rectangles, enlivened with the occasional yellow or red exception. But before he perfected the style that made him famous (about 1914), Mondrian had gone through a florid Symbolist period in the 1910s – in fact he was a keen theosophist (member of a spiritual movement akin to Rosicrucianism).

In a final, surprise move, Lucie-Smith makes a claim for Picasso to have gone through a Symbolist phase, before becoming the father of modern art.

He quotes Evocation, which does look remarkably like something by Odilon Redon (Picasso was only 19 at the time) and whose subject is a characteristically fin-de-siecle one of suicide and death. Or take Life, which uses a handful of meaningful figures to address this rather large topic, not unlike the confessional approach of Edvard Munch just a few years earlier.

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Finale

As with Michael Gibson’s book, I felt that Lucie-Smith pulled in so many outriders and fringe symbolists that he watered down the core vision and essence of Symbolism.

Beardsley? Gauguin? Whistler? Ye-e-e-s… but no. Beardsley is an illustrator who anticipates Art Nouveau design. Gauguin is a post-Impressionist. Whistler is a type of Impressionist with little or no interest in ‘religion’ or ‘the beyond’…

But that is the difficulty with the Symbolism as an-ism, it is extremely broad and covers themes, topics, ideas which spilled over from earlier movements, spilled into contemporary movements, which touched artists (and illustrators and designers) of all types and genres. At its broadest, it was the spirit of the age. All we can say with complete certainty is that the Great War utterly destroyed it, and ushered in a new, anti-spiritual age, in literature, poetry, music and the visual arts.

And, turning back to the immense and beautifully illustrated Gibson coffee-table book, I’d say that if you were only going to own one of these books, Gibson’s is the one: Lucie-Smith’s text is thorough and informative but Gibson’s illustrations are to die for.


Related links

Every room in the Guildhall Art Gallery

The Guildhall Art Gallery is a newish building, opened in 1999 to exhibit selections of the 4,500 or so art works owned by the Corporation of London. It replaced the original Guildhall Art Gallery which was destroyed by fire during the Second World War.

At any one time the gallery has room to exhibit about 250 artworks in its five or so spaces (the main, balcony, ground floor, corridor and undercroft galleries), as well as special exhibitions in the exhibition rooms. But the overwhelming reason to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery is to see its fabulous collection of Victorian paintings.

The gallery is FREE and there are chatty and engaging tours of the pictures every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 12.15, 1.15, 2.15 and 3.15.

Victorian painting

Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) saw the fruition of the Industrial Revolution and the growth and consolidation of the British Empire, but neither of these subjects is much in evidence in the paintings here. Instead the wall labels emphasise the way Victorian artists widened the scope of painting from traditional Grand History paintings or mythological subjects or portraits of the rich, to include a new and wider variety of subjects, especially of domestic or common life treated with a new dignity or compassion, and with a growing interest, as the century progressed, in depictions of beauty for its own sake, in the work of the later pre-Raphaelites and then the Aesthetic Movement.

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Main gallery

Go through the main entrance and there is a wide staircase leading up to the Main Gallery, a big, relaxing open space lined with sumptuous Victorian paintings. They’ve been hung in true Victorian style, clustered one above the other and against a dark green background. It looks like this:

Although the paintings have labels displaying names and dates, they have no description or explanation text whatsoever, which is a change and a relief. Instead, the paintings are arranged in themes each of which is introduced by a few paragraphs setting the Victorian context.

Work

Love

  • Listed (1885) by William Henry Gore. My favourite painting here.
  • The Garden of Eden (1901) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere. The tour guide pointed out the irony of the title which is actually about a mismatch between a wealthy woman who has fallen for a man much below her station: note his clumpy shoes and his trousers rolled up. Also the way he’s carrying not one but two umbrellas, intertwined like the two lovers and, if you look closely, the tiny raindrops hanging from the black branches.

Leisure

History

The main gallery on the first floor has an opening allowing you to look down into the gallery space below and hanging on the end wall and two stories high is the vast Defeat of the floating batteries at Gibraltar, 1782 by the American artist John Singleton Copley. Grand history painting like this is about the genre of art furthest from contemporary taste and culture, but there’s lots to admire apart from the sheer scale. Rather like opera, you have to accept that the genre demands stylised and stereotyped gestures of heroism and despair, before you can really enter the spirit.

Faith

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Beauty

As the century progressed an interest grew in Beauty for its own sake: one strand of this was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of voluptuous, red-haired ‘stunners’ as he called them. Strands like this fed into the movement which became known as Art for Art’s sake or Aestheticism, which sought a kind of transcendent harmony of composition and colour.

  • The violinist (1886) by George Adolphus Storey
  • La Ghirlandata (1873) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • On a fine day (1873) by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes. Although the detail is patchy, from a distance this is staggeringly effective at conveying that very English effect of sunshine on hills while the foreground is clouded over.
  • The blessed damozel (1895) by John Byam Liston Shaw
  • The rose-coloured gown (Miss Giles) (1896) by Charles Henry Malcolm Kerr. The face is a little unflattering but the rose-coloured gown is wonderfully done, lighter and airier than this reproduction suggests. There are several histories of ‘the nude’; someone ought to do a history of ‘the dress’, describing and explaining the way different fabrics have been depicted in art over the centuries.
  • A girl with fruit (1882) by John Gilbert. Crude orientalism.
  • spring, summer, autumn and winter (1876) by Alfred Emile Leopold Joseph Victor Stevens

The Guildhall

Home

During the 19th century home and work became increasingly separated and distinct. Home became a place to be decorated, shown off, furnished in the latest fashions purveyed by a growing number of decoration books and magazines. There is a massive move from the bare interiors often described in Dickens’s novels of the 1840s and 50s, to the fully furnished interiors and incipient consumer revolution of 1900.

  • Sweethearts (1892) by Walter Dendy Sadler. Late for such an anecdotal painting.
  • The music lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton. Characteristically smooth and sumptuous.
  • A sonata of Beethoven (1912) by Alfred Edward Emslie. Is that the great man himself, blurrily depicted in the window seat?
  • Sun and moon flowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie. Note the fashionable blue and white china vases.

Imagination

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra (1882) oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

A staggering, monumental work, down to the tricklets of blood leaking from the axe over the stone step.

The ground floor gallery

This actually consists of two tiny rooms next to the lifts, to the left of the main stairs, showing nine City of London-related works.

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The tour guide pointed out the face of the boy about to pinch an orange from the basket at the far left of the crowd; the black and white minstrel complete with banjo, next to him; and to the right of the white-faced soldier at the foot of the main streetlamp, is a man in brown bowler hat, a portrait of fellow artist John William Waterhouse, of Lady of Shalott fame.

The undercroft galleries

As the name suggests these are downstairs from the ground floor entrance lobby. You walk along the ‘long gallery’ (see below), through a modern glass door on the right and down some steel and glass steps into a set of small very underground-feeling rooms. The paintings are again grouped in ‘themes’, although now applying across a broader chronological range than just the Victorians, stretching back to the eighteenth century and coming right up to date with a Peter Blake work from 2015.

London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Seems clear to me that the paintings from the 1700s are of documentary interest only. Maybe there are elements of composition and technique to analyse, but they aren’t doing anything as mature, challenging and psychological as paintings like ClytemnestraOn a fine day or Listed.

War

The corridor gallery

Matthew Smith (1879-1959) was born into a family of Yorkshire industrialists. Like a lot of rich men’s sons he decided he wanted to be an artist and went to study with post-impressionist French painters in Pont Aven in 1908, then under Matisse in Paris. He served in the Great War, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown. The City of London Corporation was gifted a collection of some 1,000 of his paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and sketches in 1974.

The short corridor between the steps down from the lobby and the door into the undercroft displays some dozen of his works. Because they all have similar titles it’s almost impossible to track them down online.

These works struggle to compete with the masterpieces in the main gallery. In Matthews’ work, after the modern art revolution, the paint is laid on thick and draws attention to itself and to the canvas, to the surface and solidity, to the process of painting itself. They are about the interplay of oils, the composition of tones and colours in regard to each other, as juxtapositions of colours and shapes, of bands and shapes and lines and swirls. One result of this is that, having abandoned the realistic depiction of the outside world – using it now merely as inspiration for exercises in colour – there is an absence of the light effects which make so many of the Victorian paintings upstairs so powerful and feel so liberating.

Conclusions

Victorian painting is a game of two halves: as a general rule everything before about 1870 (except for the PRBs) was badly executed or village idiot kitsch; after the 1870s almost all the paintings have a new maturity of execution and subject matter. The change is comparable to the growth of the novel which, up to the 1860s was mostly a comic vehicle with only episodic attempts at seriousness; after around 1860 an increasingly mature, deep and moving medium for the exploration of human consciousness.

Seeing this many oil paintings together makes you realise the ability to oil to brilliantly capture the effect of sunlight – to dramatise a mythic subject and pose as in Clytemnestra – or to evoke a sense of shadow and light which is so characteristic of the English countryside, as in On a fine day – and then, in later Victorian experiments, to convey the hushed, muted shades of light at dawn and dusk – as in my favourite painting from the collection, Listed.

Oil painting can do this better than photography, in which it is very difficult to capture the difference between light and shade without glare or over-exposure. I hadn’t quite appreciated the wonderful ability of oil painting to convey the impression of sunlight in all its different effects.


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Other museums

William Morris by Christine Poulson

I don’t have many rules of reading. One of them is: always go back to the source text, never read a summary or biography – read the thing itself. Every element of an original text, its spelling, its title page, the chapter headings and sidenotes and footnotes, the entire way it is presented, tell you reams about the author, their purpose, and the times they wrote in, or when the edition was printed. And all that’s before you get to the text itself…

This breaks my rule by being a biography, a large-format coffee table book by Christine Poulson who was, at the time of writing it, Curator of the William Morris Society in London. It tells the story of Morris’s life clearly and authoritatively in chapters which cover:

  • childhood, Oxford and the pre-Raphaelites
  • 1857 published poems in The Defence of Guenevere, little noticed, discouraged him from writing
  • 1861 setting up the Firm – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. the start of 30 years of creating stained glass, murals, wallpaper, furniture, fabrics, curtains and tapestries incorporating intricate designs from nature
  • marriage to Jane Burden and happy life at the Red House in Bexley from 1859
  • 1865 forced through his wife’s illness to move to Bloomsbury central London – Jane’s affair with Rossetti
  • 1868 publishes The Earthly Paradise
  • the romantic chivalric ideals of the Morte d’Arthur no longer sufficed and Morris was drawn to the hard, bleak courage of the Icelanders depicted in the sagas: in 1868 he published the first of what was to be a series of translations of the great sagas
  • 1871 took lease on Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire with Rossetti: fled abroad to Iceland leaving Rossetti and Jane to their adulterous affair
  • late 1870s and thru the 1880s host of lectures to art schools and workingmen’s institutes
  • 1878 moved to Kelmscott House, Hammersmith: continued experiments with colouring weaving and tapestries
  • 1881 Morris took over works at Merton Abbey on the river Wandle south of London to produce carpets, tapestries and cottons, a glass studio and dye-house
  • 1883 revolted by Gladstone’s Liberals’ imperialism, Morris committed himself to socialism and joined the Democratic Federation, which became the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, the first British socialist party. At the end of that year Morris leads a breakaway faction to found the Socialist League, and for the rest of the 80s threw himself into political agitation, making speeches up and down the land in all weathers
  • from 1885 writes and edits the Commonweal the journal of the Socialist League
  • 13 November 1887 ‘Bloody Sunday’, police break up a massive demonstration in favour of free speech in Trafalgar Square, killing 2 and injuring 200. On 18 December Morris was pall-bearer to Alfred Linnell, run down and killed by a police horse: at the grave Morris called for ‘a holy war’ to prevent London being turned into a vast prison
  • 1890 publishes News from Nowhere, a vision of post-revolutionary communist England, just as the Socialist League fell apart into those prepared to compromise with Parliament and diehard anarchists. Morris withdrew his support.
  • 1891 his daughter ill with epilepsy, Morris ill with gout, possibly diabetes, told to stop working so hard and focused his energies into founding the Kelmscott Press to produce high quality books
  • 1892, upon Tennyson’s death Morris was offered the Poet Laureateship (!), being still best known to the wider public as a poet. He turned it down and it was eventually given to the Tory propagandist Alfred Austin in 1896.
  • 1896 the Kelmscott Chaucer published: over three years in the typesetting and over a year in the printing & binding, it was put into Morris’s hands only months before he died.

But the joy of this book and the reason I borrowed it from the library is the liberal use of full-page, full-colour illustrations – of paintings by the pre-Raphaelites, homes and houses, friends and lovers, furniture, tiles and stained glass etc – and above all the large double-page spreads of Morris’s wonderful fabrics and designs, such as these:


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Strawberry thief, design for printed cotton by William Morris (1883)

Strawberry thief, a design for printed cotton by William Morris (1883)

News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890)

Reading William Morris’s fiction is difficult for two reasons:

  • his prose is poor, his characterisation and plotting non-existent
  • every cause he believed in and hoped for, and which his prose exists to champion, has been defeated

Morris’s life

Clive Wilmer’s introduction to this Penguin edition paints a handy overview of Morris’s life. Number one, he was rich. He inherited money from his father, who was a successful financier. He inherited an interest in a copper company, becoming familiar with the practicalities of business at the young age of 21. Hence his later business ventures, namely William Morris and Co. – unlike most artists’ ventures into business – were efficiently run and profitable. He died leaving some £60,000, which Wilmer calculates to be £12 million in 1990s money, even more today.

The trajectory of his life is clear enough:

  • involvement at Oxford with the pre-Raphaelite group round the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti with their passionate interest in medieval life, architecture, poetry, art
  • the powerful impact of John Ruskin, art and social critic, with his belief that Art should be incorporated into everyday life, that Work should be made useful and rewarding instead of the slave labour of the factory
  • unsatisfactory attempts at painting which quickly gave way to interests in the decorative arts which came to include fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, stained glass window and book-making
  • as a young man he married the ‘stunner’ Jane Burden, a working class girl who married to escape her poverty, but the marriage was unhappy and eventually Jane became mistress of Rossetti, plunging Morris into decades of personal unhappiness

Communism

As his arts & crafts business thrived, Morris worried that the works his company were making were only affordable by the rich. It was his lifelong concern to make beautifully-made things more accessible to everyone. Alongside this, the growing conviction that society as a whole needed a wholescale revolution to abolish the crushing poverty of the Victorian age, to liberate the great mass of the labouring poor, to remove the ugliness of Victorian industrialism, to make work rewarding, free people from the capitalist cash-nexus, and restore Nature to pristine beauty unspoilt by factories and pollution.

  • In 1883 Morris joined the Democratic Foundation, a socialist group, but left the following year to found the Socialist League (SL), disagreeing with DF support for Britain’s Imperalist foreign policy and its readiness to accept a Parliamentary route to reform. Morris thought Parliament hopelessly corrupt. What was needed was a Revolution.
  • For the remainder of his life Morris poured immense energy into giving speeches, organising meetings, writing socialist poems and chants and songs, promoting his uncompromising Marxist beliefs in the necessity of an international communist revolution. He was introduced to Friedrich Engels and worked with Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. He was arrested a number of times when police broke up meetings or marches led to scuffles, but escaped prison due to his impeccable middle class credentials.
  • Morris edited, wrote and subsidised the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal. From November 1886 to January 1887 Morris’s novel, A Dream of John Ball, was serialised in it. From  January to October 1890, Morris serialised his most famous novel, News from Nowhere.

News from Nowhere

The authors of utopias tend to adopt the form in order to make polemical points, resulting in many utopias being strangely monotonous books which unravel into shopping lists of the author’s obsessions. Compare and contrast the success and popularity of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) a fully dramatised vision of future worlds, with his much more preachy A Modern Utopia (1905), which no-one reads. This, Morris’s most famous book, is no exception to the rule.

‘Plot’

In News from Nowhere a man in his fifites like Morris wakes up in Morris’s house in Hammersmith to find it is a hundred years in the future, England has gone through a Revolution and become an earthly paradise in which there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no money, no divorce, no courts, no prisons and no class systems. People work freely for the joy of it. Everything they do, because it is freely done with joy, results in objects which are beautiful.

The plot, if it can be called that, starts with Morris – renamed William Guest – meeting the folk who now live around his Hammersmith home. This home is no longer crammed among smokey factories, iron bridges and bustling Londoners and the neighbouring buildings are now just a handful of cottages standing in open fields next to a magically unpolluted river Thames.

Perceiving his bewilderment these friendly strangers take Morris in a horse and cart across what was once London and is now a series of picturesque villages thinly populated with beautiful, healthy, artistically-dressed men and women, to meet an old man living next to what was once the British Museum who – in a long chapter – retells in detail the leadup to ‘the Great Change’ i.e. the Revolution which brought about this communist paradise.

Then they go back to Hammersmith and get in a boat and row up the Thames, now pure and clean and sparkling, denuded of horrible factories and the vulgar houses of Victorian nouveaux riches, until they reach Morris’s country house, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.

Along the way they pick up a laughing young woman Ellen, who falls in love with Guest. Then he wakes up and it was all a dream.

Psychological power

The journey up the Thames represents a journey through an idyllic, prelapsarian world to Home, which is also a journey back to Morris’s boyhood memories of a happier, simpler world and a journey towards the mutual, loving fulfilment he so miserably failed to have with his wife, Jane.

As I stood there Ellen detached herself from our happy friends who still stood on the little strand and came up to me. She took me by the hand, and said softly, ‘Take me on to the house at once; we need not wait for the others: I had rather not.’ (Ch XXXI)

It is a basket of deeply personal wishes expressed as a fable and I think what power it has comes from these psychological sources rather than any socialist ideas or doctrine. It is an adult’s powerful dream of returning to the golden summers of his boyhood.

…the garden between the wall and the house was redolent of the June flowers, and the roses were rolling over one another with that delicious superabundance of small well-tended gardens which at first sight takes away all thought from the beholder save that of beauty. The blackbirds were singing their loudest, the doves were cooing on the roof-ridge, the rooks in the high elm-trees beyond were garrulous among the young leaves, and the swifts wheeled whining about the gables. And the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of this heart of summer. (XXXI)

Issues

For the serious-minded, News from Nowhere also contains a shopping list of the usual issues which crop up in utopias and, presumably, it was the touching on these hot topics which helped the book become a classic not only here but among socialists and communists across Europe.

In Morris’s post-revolutionary, communist paradise:

  • work- work is Art because it is free and unforced, done for its own joy and benefit
  • economics – there isn’t any economics because there is no money, no buying and selling, no capitalism
  • education – is not compulsory, children are left to find their own way to express themselves, not force fed in ‘boy-farms’
  • women – are free equals of men, not given or ‘owned’ in marriage
  • government – there is none – the Houses of Parliament have been converted into a large communal Dung store 🙂
  • Nature – has been liberated from factories, steam engines and all the dirt and stink of industralism, reverting to pristine beauty – ‘As we went, the folk on the bank talked indeed, mingling their kind voices with the cuckoo’s song, the sweet strong whistle of the blackbirds, and the ceaseless note of the corn-crake as he crept through the long grass of the mowing-field; whence came waves of fragrance from the flowering clover amidst of the ripe grass.’ (Ch XXXI)
  • technology – there doesn’t seem to be any at all, no steam engines or factories, let alone electric lights or telephones or motor cars, ‘so that the most obviously useful works looked beautiful and natural also.’ (Ch XXX)
  • communism – is the name given to this ideal unspoilt world of equality and freedom

Almost none of these ‘ideas’ are really worthy of serious consideration.

No-one would disagree that work for many is a grinding drudgery, that soul-less economics is the ruling ideology of our time, that education has become more regimented than ever and yet still seems to fail millions of children, that woman are still not equal or free, that the government is inept and political parties are just different flavours of yes-men fronting for banks and big business, that Nature has been ruined and despoiled, that a lot of technology is poisonous and destructive – and that it would be lovely if all this could be swept away and replaced by an eternal summer of beautiful men and women living lives of simplicity and rural leisure.

By framing the issues in such a vividly romantic vision of a world born again, Morris certainly in his own day, and maybe still in ours, gives a kind of psychological power to his vision of how the world could and should be if only we could get rid of ‘capitalism’, the ‘system’, ‘pollution’. But this nostalgia for a better world doesn’t find any practical solutions in the book, because Morris has no solutions except a mysterious and sweeping change to human nature, which transforms everyone into tall graceful characters from a medieval romance.

Style

Beguiling as this vision may be, and long into the night though the arguments about any of these perennial topics of conversation could last, a novel is made out of words and Morris, although he has the fluency and confidence of a man of his age and class (Marlborough public school, Oxford) seems to be incapable of writing an interesting sentence.

Bland and energyless and utterly predictable is every sentence in this long book.

So on we went, Dick rowing in an easy tireless way, and Clara sitting by my side admiring his manly beauty and heartily good-natured face, and thinking, I fancy, of nothing else. As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful; and as we slipped between the lovely summer greenery, I almost felt my youth come back to me, and as if I were on one of those water excursions which I used to enjoy so much in days when I was too happy to think that there could be much amiss anywhere. (Chapter XXII)

The book’s sub-title says it all: ‘An Epoch of Rest’.

Old-fashioned diction

Morris thought returning to the decorative motifs and subjects of medieval tapestries would result in better design and this may well be true of his famous and successful wallpapers, curtains, furniture coverings and so on.

However, it was not a successful strategy for his prose. Merely writing ‘quoth’ and ‘said I’ and ‘methinks’ and chucking in a few archaisms like ‘sele’ and ‘mamelon’ does not medievalise or beautify his style. It simply becomes standard Victorian with irritatingly anachronistic phraseology and vocabulary.

Around the time of the Great War English prose underwent a revolution which had many streams, many authors and styles, but nearly all of them led towards a Modernist rejection of all old-fashioned diction and an emphasis on modern words assembled in shorter, stripped-down sentences, reflecting, say, the move towards Art Deco in the decorative arts or neo-classicism in music.

In one short generation, by, say, the mid-twenties, Morris’s entire style and the endeavours of everyone like him who hoped to recapture and restore something of medieval beauty by using medieval words, looked ludicrous.

In the 1900s Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy had created a kind of suburban English style; by the end of the War writers like Aldous Huxley were creating a slick, spiffy style to reflect the Roaring Twenties. And then, of course, there were the Americans.

A short generation after his death, Morris’s prose, like his dark fussy wallpapers and fabrics, looked unbearably stuffy, a relic from a prehistoric age, tired faded books from an era become completely irrelevant to the permanent crises of the twentieth century. Why dream about lazy boating trips down the Thames when the Bolshevik army was invading Poland, or the Italian fascists were marching on Rome?

Today, a hundred and twenty-eight years later, in a society and a world completely dominated by the triumph of Finance Capitalism, throwaway consumerism and environmental destruction, it is hard to read News from Nowhere because its vision seems too naive and personal, because all the causes Morris fought for have been comprehensively defeated, and because it is written in a prose which offers almost no rewards, apart from the lulling, drowsy soporific of a lazy summer afternoon.

We came just here on a gang of men road-mending which delayed us a little; but I was not sorry for it; for all I had seen hitherto seemed a mere part of a summer holiday; and I wanted to see how this folk would set to on a piece of real necessary work. They had been resting, and had only just begun work again as we came up; so that the rattle of the picks was what woke me from my musing. There were about a dozen of them, strong young men, looking much like a boating party at Oxford would have looked in the days I remembered, and not more troubled with their work: their outer raiment lay on the road-side in an orderly pile under the guardianship of a six-year-old boy, who had his arm thrown over the neck of a big mastiff, who was as happily lazy as if the summer-day had been made for him alone. (Chapter VII)

The whole book is like the lapping of small waves against the sides of a punt on his beloved river Thames, pleasant, relaxing, utterly without impact.

History

News from Nowhere was published in book form in 1891. One hundred years later, in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed. For that hundred years the book was part of the continuum of socialist or communist texts which helped to support and justify communist regimes around the world. Now it has lived on into the ideological vacuum of the post-communist era. Much of what it says about the misery and exploitation of the capitalist system, about the importance of fulfilling work and well-designed surroundings and the despoliation of nature, remain true today.

The difference is no-one believes anything can be done. Most people have abandoned any engagement with politics and live as atomised units connected only by their smartphones and Facebook.

Seems to me what impact News from Nowhere possesses comes from two sources:

  • the psychological or imaginative power of its sustained dream of the long lazy summers of childhood
  • and a nostalgia for a time when people gave a damn about politics and believed they really could change the world

These two strands, I think, overlap and combine to give the book its sad nostalgic feeling.

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece


Related links

Reviews of other William Morris articles and essays

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

Related links

Other reviews of Tate exhibitions

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