The Pre-Raphaelites – Victorian Rebels

Study Day

Lecture One: The Years of Achievement 1848 – 1860

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was established in the autumn of 1848 in the house of John Millais’ parents in Gower Street, London. They were young, inexperienced painters whose style was just being formed, but within the next five years they had established an extraordinary reputation through their revolutionary work. The influence of Ruskin’s ‘Modern Painters’ in which he talks about ‘the innocent eye’ and ‘infantile sight’ is important as was Ruskin’s letter to ‘The Times’ in 1851 in which he defended the young group of artists. The great paintings of the 1850’s include works by Millais, Hunt, Madox Brown, Rossetti, and Arthur Hughes. Pre-Raphaelite paintings have a number of different themes – literary themes include Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Dante, Mallory’s ‘Morte Darthur’ and Coventry Patmore; religious themes include the childhood of Christ, the Annunciation and comments on the contemporary Tractarian movement; social comments include the problems of prostitution, vagrancy and emigration. The Pre-Raphaelites looked back to the period of Giotto and Bellini when shading and sophisticated painterly effects were unknown; they disliked the technique of Sir ‘Sloshua’ Reynolds and ridiculed his ‘Lectures’. They painted on white canvases often using modern chemical colours to create a luminosity and intensity which had not been seen in painting for many years.

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Lecture Two: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelites were Victorian rebels who turned away from the accepted standards of Victorian ‘morality’. John Millais painted Effie Ruskin in ‘The Order of Release’ but when he travelled with the Ruskin’s to Scotland in 1853 he became dismayed at John Ruskin’s attitude towards his wife and soon John and Effie were in love. The subsequent annulment of the Ruskin marriage and elopement of Effie with Millais led to a break-up of the Pre-Raphaelite group. Walter Deverell saw the red haired Lizzie Siddal in a hat shop off Leicester Square and asked her to model for him. She became famous as the model for Millais’ Ophelia and was soon living with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. After a fiery relationship, marriage and a miscarriage, Lizzie overdosed on laudanum in 1862. Holman Hunt met Annie Miller, a prostitute from the Chelsea slums and set about reforming her. She sat for ‘The Awakening Conscience’ but ultimately disappointed Hunt. Fanny Cornforth also worked as a prostitute before modelling for Rossetti. These young women have become icons of Pre-Raphaelite beauty.

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Lecture Three: The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape

Just as the ‘Lectures’ of Reynolds were rejected, so the Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters rejected the Claudian tradition in landscape painting, taking their motto from Ruskin’s dictum that an artist must ‘go to nature in all her singleness of heart…rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing.’ They painted nature in great detail and focus, using a minimum of shadows and often working on the spot for hours on end. Hunt and Millais both painted wonderful landscapes in their main works such as Hunt’s ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ and ‘The Scapegoat’, but in addition a school of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting developed with fascinating artists such as William Pryce Boyce, Thomas Seddon, William Inchbold, John Inchbold, John Brett and John Bunney. Maybe one of the most beautiful and haunting Pre-Raphaelite landscapes is William Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay a Recollection of October 5th 1858’ which is a sophisticated study of time.

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Lecture Four: The Later Pre-Raphaelites 1860 – 1917

When Rossetti was invited to decorate the Oxford Union Debating Chamber in the summer of 1857 he gathered together a group of young artists including Arthur Hughes, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Out of this came Morris Marshall and Faulkner, a company set up by Morris to produce furnishings and stained glass for the church and later for private houses. Philip Webb’s Red House and its interior decoration was an important step for Pre-Raphaelite design and the ensuing Arts and Crafts Movement. Rossetti’s style developed in the 1860’s away from his earlier watercolours based on medieval stories to more sexually provocative oil portrait of ‘The Stunners’. Fanny Cornforth, Alexa Wilding and later Janey Morris all sat to Rossetti in his Tudor House Chelsea. Edward Burne-Jones developed his own highly individual style which became very popular amongst the avant-garde in Britain and in Europe. Is John Waterhouse the last Pre-Raphaelite whose work by 1900 was already out of date? Or is he part of the growing Symbolist Movement in Europe? Far from being an irrelevant, entirely British movement, Pre-Raphaelitism was the crucible for European Symbolism and artists such as Khnopff, Delville and Puvis de Chavannes owed much to them.

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