The popularity of the Pre-Raphaelites

Published 11 September 2018

With four shows highlighting Pre-Raphaelite artists on this autumn, Jan Marsh looks at why the brotherhood, and sisterhood, of artists retain their popularity.

What accounts for the continuing popularity of Pre-Raphaelitism?

Most art movements rise and fall in favour over the years as audience tastes peak and sink. One exception, of course, is the French Impressionists: Claude Monet seems never to lack admirers. Despite belonging to a dark and despised age, and dominated by beardy old Victorians, the English Pre-Raphaelites today appear to follow suit, as museums present exhibitions large and small on this evergreen theme. This autumn sees four such shows – sufficient to satisfy the most ardent admirers.

For most of the past century, the Pre-Raphaelite movement (whose founding members, as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), included William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and whose wider circle included Edward Burne-Jones, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal and artist and critic John Ruskin) was quite out of critical favour. Ridiculed for its Victorian fantasies and sentiment, despised by Modernists for narrative, damned for figuration by international Abstractionism, the Pre-Raphaelites were a neglected group, ignored by art historians and unvalued by dealers. A few votaries marked the PRB centenary in 1948, but the revival of Pre-Raphaelite fortunes began only with the pioneering show at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in 1984.

This tapped into late ‘flower-power’ tastes for loose hair and flowing skirts, and was further fuelled by collectors such as composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and others in the music business responding to high colour and visual melodrama in art.

As it happens, two of the 2018 exhibitions relate to collectors who kept the flame alight in the days of disrespect. Geoffrey Mander (1882-1962) and his wife Rosalie bought pictures, books, ceramics and furniture for their neo-Jacobean house, Wightwick Manor, outside Wolverhampton. The collection includes watercolours and sketches by Siddal that fill a concentrated display of her work in Wightwick’s current exhibition, Beyond Ophelia. The last dedicated exhibition of Siddal’s work was curated by me in Sheffield three decades ago, so the time is ripe for further appraisal.

Lizzie Siddal: talent and imagination

Lizzie, as she is familiarly known to all fans, was the model for Millais’ renowned painting Ophelia (1851-52), and Rossetti’s haunting Beata Beatrix (c1867). She was also an aspiring artist who gained access to the art world by modelling and succeeded in becoming Rossetti’s student, sweetheart and fellow exhibitor in the landmark PRB show of 1857, and eventually becoming his wife.

Hannah Squire, curator of Beyond Ophelia, notes that Siddal’s distinctive, naïve drawing style accorded with the PRB belief that ‘natural talent and imagination’ were an artist’s most important attributes, easily stifled and corrupted by conventional training based on copying. The exhibition also includes samples of Siddal’s poetry, never published in her lifetime.

‘I wanted to incorporate her voice into the exhibition,’ explains Squire, ‘and took inspiration from Geoffrey Mander, who had quotes from popular writers inscribed on walls around the manor.’

Simultaneously on view at Wightwick are a selection of paintings by Evelyn De Morgan (part of the wider Pre-Raphaelite group).

Christina Rossetti: the poet of the Pre-Raphaelites

Wightwick also owns a comic drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of his sister Christina throwing a tantrum in response to a review of her first volume of poetry and alluding to the ebullitions of temper that broke through her otherwise painfully controlled demeanour. Christina Rossetti was the poet of the group: although excluded from the PRB, she shared in its excitements and proved the most notable contributor to its magazine The Germ.

From 13 November the Watts Gallery in Surrey will devote its temporary exhibition spaces to Christina Rossetti’s life and art. The exhibition Christina Rossetti will include portraits, books, sketches, illustrations to her poems and photographs. It will feature the unfinished oil painting by John Brett that many believe depicts Christina Rossetti, and a whole sequence of images for her poem Goblin Market, by Florence Harrison, Arthur Rackham, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others.

Shown together with pictures and illustrations relating to other works produced by Julia Margaret Cameron, Arthur Hughes, ER Hughes and Byam Shaw – alongside Christina Rossetti’s own intriguing and virtually unknown drawings – the exhibition explores Rossetti's ambivalent attitude to visual art. The gallery in addition has its permanent display of Victorian artist GF Watts’ work, and the Pre-Raphaelite influenced Memorial Chapel created by his wife, Mary Seton Watts.

Women and the Pre-Raphaelites

Sadly, GF Watts did not consider including women in his ‘Hall of Fame’ of illustrious contemporaries until too late, and then only for a few female worthies such as Josephine Butler. Otherwise, in keeping with Victorian ideals, only ‘beauties’ were fit for representation.

This is an issue that dogs the whole Pre-Raphaelite school, raising uncomfortable questions about both the viewers and the viewed.

Is Pre-Raphaelite popularity gendered? For long, the glowing portrayals of ‘stunners’, together with dramatic and romantic scenes of assignation and betrayal, have been regarded as simple examples of the dominant ‘male gaze’, produced by male artists for male patrons. Compared to works produced primarily for clubs and smoking rooms, Pre-Raphaelite canvases were actually quite chaste, or at least suggestive rather than overt. And many were painted with patrons’ wives in mind, who were happy to display the pictorial descendants of Charles II’s 17th-century ‘Windsor Beauties’(Peter Lely’s series of 11 paintings of celebrated women) in their drawing rooms.

Nowadays, women may be the main admirers and consumers of Pre-Raphaelite art. Taking a sisterly approach to those depicted, any group of art-history fans is likely to come, sooner or later, to a lively discussion of the merits or morals of Lizzie Siddal, Effie Gray, Janey Morris, Fanny Cornforth, Georgie Burne-Jones, Emma Sandys and Alexa Wilding.

Does this response reflect fantasies around fashion modelling today, transposed back to the Victorian art world? Possibly, but the response endures and deepens as scholarship extends. And men share the passion too. In the view of Rupert Maas, whose eponymous London gallery has long supported the Pre Raphaelites, the artists remain popular because ‘they were teenage rebels with fire in their bellies and bees in their bonnets – young, talented romantics who read poetry and were sex-mad, and determined not to be like their parents.

‘Their paintings speak to us across generations, like the music of those clever art-school students who formed bands in the 1970s and 1980s.’

LS Lowry: an unlikely admirer

The male gaze is certainly at work in the second of this season’s Pre-Raphaelite shows based on a collection.

At the Lowry in Salford, the museum is presenting what will to many be the surprising admiration LS Lowry had for the PRB. For more than 40 years he maintained that Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown were his two favourite artists. He bought in the 1960s, when the art was still undervalued, and acquired 16 works by Rossetti, including the prime version of his painting of Proserpine.

What drew the artist of matchstick figures in bleak industrial streetscapes to smouldering large-limbed ‘stunners’? Was it their contained sensuality, or fellow feeling towards the artist, whose reputation in the 1900s, when Lowry began painting, was that of an obsessive recluse?

Public collections in and around Manchester that Lowry knew so well are rich in Victorian works. ‘We’re in a really good position to tell the story of how Lowry fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelites,’ explains Claire Stewart, curator of Lowry & the Pre-Raphaelites. ‘The exhibition looks at his lifelong favourites, as well as lesser-known pictures, which he first saw in the loan exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery in 1911.’

Burne-Jones' angels and imaginary realms

The etiolated figures in Burne-Jones’ art might visually resonate more with Lowry’s if they did not inhabit such very opposed imaginary realms. Indeed, in Burne-Jones’ early work, drawn under Rossetti’s medievalising tutelage, although not stick men, the figures are angular and puppetlike. On his first trip to Rome, his wife tells us, Burne-Jones lay on the Sistine Chapel floor studying the ceiling with binoculars, and was henceforth converted to Renaissance musculature, while never yielding to Baroque bosoms and buttocks.

Unlike Lowry, Burne-Jones shut his eyes to the urban world around him, in his native Birmingham and in London. According to Oscar Wilde, when the subject of modern science was raised, Burne-Jones declared ‘the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels I shall paint’. How many angels are to be counted in the forthcoming Tate Britain show Edward Burne-Jones, with more than 150 works from all periods and in all media? And what is their appeal in an ever-more secular society?

One aspect of Pre-Raphaelite popularity lies in its shifting compass. Strictly, the term refers to early PRB drawing and painting, with exact observation, flat colour planes and what Victorian painter Joanna Boyce called ‘honest feeling’. By 1860, the art had swerved from Ruskinian precision to Venetian splendour, then towards pale chromatic harmonies in graceful forms that are properly called Aesthetic, before absorbing also moods and themes best defined as Symbolist.

Because neither Impressionist nor Realist, and seldom heroic, but depicting imaginative, poetic, dreamlike subjects, all these modes now tend to come within the baggy Pre-Raphaelite palisade, with the result of a wide-ranging appeal.

Or perhaps, as artist Paula Rego once told me, the attraction lies chiefly in the stories the pictures tell, suggest, withhold. Burne-Jones is surely the master of the first, second and beguiling last of these techniques. Where the tales of Sidonia von Bork, King Cophetua, Perseus or Merlin are clear, or can at least be found out, what is the story in paintings such as Le Chant d’Amour or Love among the Ruins? Assuredly not in the titular texts by Auguste Brizeux or Robert Browning; Burne-Jones preferred his own imaginings, and the viewer enters the pictorial world wondering, as if arriving at a cinema in the middle of a movie.

The last major Burne-Jones exhibition, Victorian Artist-Dreamer, was shown in New York, Birmingham and Paris two decades ago. By all accounts, it failed to beguile all visitors. Perhaps today, thanks to The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and other sub Arthurian TV and film entertainments, the response would be different, now cinematic effects so regularly create a visual realm that, to quote Burne-Jones, is a ‘dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire’. The optical origins of these medieval fantasy epics featuring kings and queens, wizards and magic powers surely lie in Pre-Raphaelitism and in Burne-Jones’ supple, glistening suits of armour.

Tate Britain’s show will present paintings, drawing, textiles, glass, jewellery and designs, revealing Burne-Jones’ artistic versatility and consistency. It will highlight his incomparable draughtsmanship, featuring the many beautiful studies of nude figures and flying drapery, together with comic thumbnail caricatures of himself, friends and his especial hate: fat ladies. Curator Alison Smith draws attention to the thematic exhibition structure, noting also that its dates will span Christmas and New Year, apt to the ‘bookending’ offered by two iterations of the artist’s Adoration of the Magi, one oil triptych from 1861, the other the great tapestry designed for Morris & Co in 1890.

The full range of Burne-Jones’ brilliance will be on view at Tate, inviting viewers to form and revise their responses. Was his art an escapist dream? And what impact does it still have on our visual imaginations?

‘Fashion in art is fickle and works of art can be relegated from top billing to obscurity,’ writes curator Christopher Newall in a thoughtful piece on popularity. Might this happen to the Pre-Raphaelites? Could the mass audience turn against these images, perhaps as a result of overfamiliarity?

It seems unlikely. As Newall adds, away from Britain, new audiences are being struck afresh by the power of Pre-Raphaelite imagery. In the UK, this season’s selection demonstrates that as blockbuster, niche, discovery, reappraisal – or even just as enjoyment – the movement retains its perennial appeal.

Jan Marsh has written and curated extensively on the Pre-Raphaelites. Her exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sisters will open at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in autumn 2019.

Beyond Ophelia is free with National Art Pass (£11.35 standard), Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton, until 24 December.

Edward Burne-Jones is £9 with National Art Pass (£18 standard), Tate Britain, London, 24 October to 24 February 2019.

Lowry & the Pre-Raphaelites is free to all, the Lowry, Salford, 10 November to 24 February 2019.

Christina Rossetti is £5.75 with National Art Pass (£11.50 standard), Watts Gallery, near Guildford, 13 November to 17 March 2019.

This feature was originally published in the autumn 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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