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date: 25 February 2021

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhoodfree

(act. 1848–1854)
  • Tim Barringer

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (act. 1848–1854), was the most influential avant-garde group in the history of British art. Founded in September 1848, its three leading members, all students at the Royal Academy Schools, were John Everett Millais (in whose parents' house at 83 Gower Street, London, the initial meetings took place), William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They were joined by the aspiring painters James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens; the sculptor Thomas Woolner; and Rossetti's younger brother William Michael Rossetti, who served as the Brotherhood's secretary from 1849 to 1853, and later became its official historian. Although this initial grouping was relatively short-lived, its influence extended throughout the nineteenth century and reached well beyond Britain. Major artistic and cultural figures such as Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris took up the Brotherhood's ideas, expanded and transformed them. British art has produced no more significant movement.

The Brotherhood

The seven members of the Brotherhood were characterized by their youth and precocity–Millais, already a superbly accomplished draughtsman and painter, was only nineteen while Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a published poet at just twenty. More importantly, they shared a deep dissatisfaction with the condition of contemporary art in Britain, as manifested in the education offered by the Royal Academy Schools and the work included in the RA's annual summer exhibitions. Their impetus to challenge the status quo resonated with the larger political climate in the year of European revolutions: indeed, Holman Hunt and Millais had witnessed in person the great Chartist meeting on Kennington Common on 10 April 1848.

The initials ‘PRB’ were seen for the first time in public on 24 March 1849 at the Free Exhibition in London, inscribed beneath the signature in the lower left corner of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849; Tate collection). The following year, amid some press speculation, the true meaning of the initials was revealed. The Brotherhood aimed to return art to the condition of freshness and honesty that they perceived in works from before the time of Raphael (1483–1520), which they knew from newly acquired early Italian and Netherlandish paintings at the National Gallery and print series such as Carlo Lasinio's line engravings reproducing frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli at Pisa. To challenge the status of Raphael, long considered (with Michelangelo) to represent the apogee of the fine arts, implied a radical critique of the academy and its hierarchies of value and authority.

The first masterpiece of Pre-Raphaelitism, Millais's Isabella, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849, presented the new style at its most provocative: the drawing was sharply angular; the conventional rules of perspective were ignored; and the young artist employed brilliant colours and startlingly precise details to create a hypnotically vivid effect. Something of this preternatural sharpness may have derived from Millais's awareness of Daguerreotype photography: Isabella was at once intensely historical and unmistakably modern. Professional models were eschewed, and the young painter refused to reproduce ideal types: instead, each head was painstakingly studied from an individual who was close at hand, such as the two Rossetti brothers and Millais's father.

The Brotherhood had its origins in meetings of the Cyclographic Society, a loose-knit and short-lived association of artists centred on Ford Madox Brown that met in the summer of 1848. All six artist protagonists in the PRB had attended the society's meetings, at which members would subject for criticism their work on a given theme. Brown, born in 1821, was a deeply serious and accomplished painter of historical subjects, a querulous figure with anti-establishment leanings. He acted as a mentor to the young Pre-Raphaelites, briefly taking on Rossetti as his pupil. Brown's work of the late 1840s prefigures many of the major tenets of Pre-Raphaelitism and his works of the 1850s are masterpieces in the Pre-Raphaelite style. He may have been asked to join the Brotherhood in 1848 and refused; certainly he was never a member of the PRB. Brown, however, provides an important link with an earlier secessionist group, the German Brotherhood of St Luke, or ‘Nazarenes’. After abandoning their academic training in Vienna, they had formed a tight-knit quasi-religious brotherhood in Rome in 1809. Brown met the leading Nazarenes on a visit to Rome in 1845–6 and, like his older contemporary William Dyce, who also supported the PRB, assimilated aspects of the German artists' historicist style.

The literary and the visual were imbricated in Pre-Raphaelitism. Rossetti's first successes came through poetry and his paintings (such as The Blessed Damozel, 1871–8; Harvard U., Fogg Art Museum) often grew from his literary conceptions. In 1850, under William Michael Rossetti's editorship, the group produced The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art, a short-lived literary periodical which stood as a manifesto for the PRB. It included poetry, short stories, and factual articles by members of the circle. As a literary style, as also in the visual sphere, Pre-Raphaelitism was paradoxically notable for its insistence on detailed observation and for its embrace of the spiritual and the supernatural. This dual emphasis is found in 'Goblin Market' (composed 1859; published 1862), the most celebrated production of Christina Rossetti, younger sister of Dante and William, who became one of the leading poets of the Victorian age.

Critical hostility to the PRB reached a peak in 1850 when Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop) (1849–50; Tate collection) was denounced, notably by Charles Dickens, for its allegedly disrespectful characterization of the holy family. For Dickens, Millais's Christ resembled 'a blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown' (Old lamps for new ones, Household Words, no. 12, 15 June 1850). The Brotherhood's fortunes changed dramatically in 1851 when John Ruskin, the most eminent critic of the day, wrote to The Times in defence of the PRB:

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.

The Times, 13 May 1851

With this, Ruskin brought Pre-Raphaelitism into line with aspects of his own thinking, as developed in the first volume of his Modern Painters (1843). Many of the most original effects of early Pre-Raphaelite painting were, indeed, achieved by painting outdoors directly on to the canvas. Two works exhibited at the RA in 1852, Millais's Ophelia (1851–2; Tate collection) and Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd (1851–2; Manchester City Galleries), demonstrated an unprecedented brilliance of colour and fidelity of natural detail.

Ophelia was also notable for the distinctive physiognomy of the model, Elizabeth Siddall, the most important of the many women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle [see Pre-Raphaelite women artists, (1848–1870s)]. Initially asked to model for Walter Howell Deverell, a close associate of the group, Siddall became the muse and, eventually, lover and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose images of her sharp profile and flowing red hair became fundamental to the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty. Siddall's success as a model propelled her out of the drudgery of work in the milliner's shop of a Mrs Tozer, and allowed her to embark on the artistic career she had long desired. Her work of the later 1850s clearly engages in a dialogue with that of Rossetti, but it is distinguished by bold angularity of line and vibrancy of colour. Many of Siddall's works explore the complex psychology of female characters, notably her drawing of The Lady of Shalott (1853; priv. coll.). The turbulent relationship with Rossetti, whom she married on 23 May 1860, ended tragically with Siddall's suicide on 11 February 1862. Among Rossetti's many memorials to her, the best known is Beata Beatrix (1864–70; Tate collection), which conflates memories of Siddall with the character of Dante Alighieri's beloved Beatrice.

The Pre-Raphaelites gained the support of a small but active group of patrons. Among their earliest supporters were the Tractarian publisher Thomas Combe, printer to the University of Oxford, and his wife, Martha, who met Millais in Oxford in 1849. Pre-Raphaelite works appealed to members of the industrial middle class such as the evangelical Leeds stockbroker Thomas Plint, and Thomas Fairbairn, the owner of a large Manchester engineering concern. But by 1853, the original Brotherhood had begun to fragment. First to leave had been Collinson, a melancholic Tractarian who had renounced his membership of the Brotherhood on his decisive conversion to Catholicism early in 1850, a move which also ended his engagement to Christina Rossetti. His subsequent work as a genre painter is modest in ambition and hardly bears the stamp of Pre-Raphaelitism. Thomas Woolner had emigrated to Australia in July 1852, an event commemorated in Ford Madox Brown's iconic canvas The Last of England (1852–5; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery). Failing to make a fortune in Australia, he returned to England in 1855 and forged a career of some distinction as a sculptor of portrait busts, reliefs, and monumental figures. Frederic George Stephens soon abandoned painting to become one of the most important art writers of his generation, head critic of the Athenaeum for forty years, and the author of a series of monographs. Though his sympathies broadened, he remained a lucid advocate of Pre-Raphaelitism.

In the spring of 1854, Holman Hunt departed for an extended painting trip in Palestine, effectively bringing the Brotherhood to an end. Hunt left behind two major works, The Awakening Conscience (1854; Tate collection) and The Light of the World (1854; Keble College, Oxford), which were exhibited at the RA after his departure. The former is a searingly realistic depiction of a kept woman in a St John's Wood apartment who penitently renounces her fallen condition; the latter, an emblematic representation of Christ knocking at the door of the human soul, became perhaps the most widely circulated religious image of the nineteenth century.

Millais was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy in 1853, and in June of that year had joined Ruskin and his wife, Effie (born Euphemia Chalmers Gray) on a holiday to Glenfinlas, in Scotland. Millais began a masterly portrait of Ruskin set against a landscape (1853–4; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Painted with the utmost fidelity, it seems the perfect application of Ruskin's artistic theory. But Millais also took a role in the disintegration of the Ruskins' unhappy and unconsummated marriage. His romantic involvement with Effie led ultimately to the annulment of the marriage and the severing of links with the critic. They were married on 3 July 1855.

Ford Madox Brown, now indelibly associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, began in 1852 two compositions that would become the greatest achievements, respectively, of Pre-Raphaelite landscape and modern life painting: An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead—Scenery in 1853 (1852–5; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) and Work (1852–63; Manchester City Galleries). The latter offers a complex visual disquisition on the theme of labour, inflected by the writings of Thomas Carlyle and F. D. Maurice, both of whom are depicted in the foreground. In a radical departure from convention, the heroes of this ambitious composition are a group of navvies digging a trench for new water pipes in Heath Street, Hampstead. Brown, like Ruskin and Rossetti, taught an art class at the Working Men's College in London, and found much to admire in Maurice's Christian Socialist ideas, an indication of the status of Pre-Raphaelitism as a politically, as well as aesthetically, radical movement.

In the mid-1850s, a group of younger artists took up the Pre-Raphaelite flame: Ruskin's disciples John Brett and John William Inchbold pursued landscape painting, while Arthur Hughes and William Bell Scott, as well as the Liverpool painter William Lindsay Windus, created important figurative and historical works in the Pre-Raphaelite idiom.

Pre-Raphaelitism after the Brotherhood

After 1854 the founders of the movement continued to pursue their artistic careers with varying degrees of success. Millais gradually abandoned the sharp focus of early Pre-Raphaelitism: he experimented instead with atmospheric tone-poems such as Autumn Leaves (1855; Manchester City Galleries) and historical narrative subjects notable for their psychological complexity. Popular with a wide audience, he became a national treasure and ended his life as president of the Royal Academy. Hunt returned from the Holy Land as something of a celebrity; The Scapegoat (1854–5; Manchester City Galleries), painted in lurid colours on the shore of the Dead Sea, created something of a sensation at the RA in 1856; its successor, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1854–60; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), was an elaborate historical painting which offered a reconstruction of a scene from Christ's childhood based on extensive ethnographic and archaeological research. Exhibited in London at the German Gallery, owned by the celebrated dealer Ernest Gambart, the painting was a popular triumph and was sent on a national tour. Hunt received £5500 for the work from Gambart, a vast sum which the dealer recouped within six months from ticket receipts and the sale of engravings. On the basis of these works Hunt fashioned himself as 'the painter of the Christ'.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement, however, was far from extinguished. Although Rossetti had ceased to exhibit his work publicly, he produced a series of exquisite watercolours on medieval themes between 1855 and 1859, and in that year began a series of evocative oil paintings of female sitters in luxurious interior settings with allusive titles such as The Blue Bower (1865; Barber Institute, Birmingham). During the 1860s, Rossetti became the lodestar of a Bohemian circle centred on his residence, Tudor House, Chelsea, which included the poet Algernon Swinburne and the American painter James McNeill Whistler. The group was bound together by a shared joy in flouting convention, a mutual interest in collecting Chinese and Japanese ceramics, and a fascination with the relationship of art and music. Rossetti's model, lover, and housekeeper at Tudor House, Fanny Cornforth, born Sarah Cox, daughter of a Sussex blacksmith, appears in many of his works of the 1860s, including The Blue Bower. Rather as an actress develops a role in a play, Cornforth seems to have shaped Rossetti's artistic choices, as he moved towards more opulent and sensuous productions during the 1860s. After 1863 the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron developed a distinctive idiom in dialogue with Rossetti's work, utilizing the focal length of the camera to create opulent visual effects. Like Rossetti, she often created images with a single female sitter.

Even before his move to Tudor House, Rossetti had already acquired an ardent circle of younger admirers. Commissioned in 1856 to decorate the Oxford Union building with frescoes, Rossetti could command the talents of what amounted to a new brotherhood, comprising Arthur Hughes, Valentine Cameron Prinsep, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and John Hungerford Pollen. Most significantly, however, he was joined by two men he had met when they were Oxford undergraduates: Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. In their hands, Pre-Raphaelitism entered a new phase in which distinctions between the fine and decorative arts were collapsed, and the implicit political radicalism of the earlier movement, inspired by Ruskin's social criticism, was transformed into a revolutionary socialist politics.

Although the Oxford frescoes were something of a failure, as a result of Rossetti's incomplete technical knowledge, the creative partnership with Morris and Burne-Jones would be of global significance. The three joined with Ford Madox Brown, the architect Philip Webb, and two business partners—Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner—to form Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., a pioneering enterprise in the decorative arts. With Morris and Burne-Jones as its primary designers, ‘the firm’ pioneered the revival of craft techniques in the production of textiles, wallpaper, furniture, and stained glass. The firm's stand at the 1862 International Exhibition in London was widely admired. The explicitly anti-industrial methods of production led, ironically, to high retail prices, but Morris and Burne-Jones's distinctive reinvention of medieval motifs and media was influential on artists and designers across the world, playing a significant role in the emergence, for example, of the arts and crafts movement in Britain and the USA, l'art nouveau in France, and Jugendstil in the German-speaking lands: as Nikolaus Pevsner revealed, Morris's ideas even lie in the ancestry of the Bauhaus. While Morris, who had also achieved considerable distinction as a Pre-Raphaelite poet, moved decisively towards politics, as leader of the Socialist League from December 1884, Burne-Jones created large-scale oil paintings in a distinctive, highly decorative idiom, that are among the consummate achievements of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. In his vast upright canvas King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884; Tate collection) the king, surrounded by material splendor, is transfixed by the honest beauty of a female beggar. When shown at the Paris exposition of 1889, the painting was understood by the distinguished French critic Robert de la Sizeranne as a socialist parable.

Pre-Raphaelitism experienced a last flowering just before the First World War, as a generation of British artists born well after the founding of the PRB revived aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite practice. (John) Byam Liston Shaw, (Mary) Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, and (Mary) Evelyn De Morgan all created compositions notably indebted to the Pre-Raphaelites for exhibition at the RA, while Burne-Jones and Morris decisively influenced the revival of tempera painting and various forms of decorative art by artists associated with the Birmingham School of Art, such as Joseph Southall, Arthur and Georgie Gaskin, and Kate Bunce.

The early history of Pre-Raphaelitism is remarkable for having largely been written by its members. In 1905 Holman Hunt published Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, intended as a definitive history of the movement. The text is filled with detail available only to a protagonist; but Hunt was determined to emphasize his own and Millais's achievements at the expense of Rossetti, Brown, Burne-Jones, and Morris. William Michael Rossetti and F. G. Stephens also published extensive commentaries kinder to the Rossettian strand of the movement. By the time the second edition of Hunt's book appeared, posthumously, in 1913, however, the tide of taste had turned decisively against the PRB. Roger Fry and Clive Bell led the charge against Victorian art in general and the Pre-Raphaelites in particular, and during the interwar decades fashionable opinion derided the group.

A significant revival of interest in Pre-Raphaelite painting began with centenary exhibitions and publications in 1948; revelatory exhibitions reassessed Madox Brown (in 1964), Millais (1967), Hunt (1969); Rossetti (1973), and Burne-Jones (1975). These shows won popular and critical acclaim in the ‘swinging sixties’ and psychedelic early 1970s: audiences found resonances with the Rossettian avant-garde, the clothing and hair styles of Carnaby Street seemed to mirror figures in paintings by Rossetti and Burne-Jones. The Tate Gallery's massive survey exhibition of 1984, with scholarly catalogue, precipitated a tide of revisionist academic activity and popular interest that continues to this day. With the demise of modernism, the Pre-Raphaelites have returned decisively to favour. A further Tate exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (2012–14), which included decorative arts, sculpture, and photography, was also shown in Washington, Moscow, Tokyo, and Turin, and was seen by more than one million visitors.


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