Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
Tate Britain

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Art Criticism

Collected by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the inspiration for a number of rumpy-pumpy TV costume dramas, it’s hard to think beyond the flowing hair, the luxurious silk dresses and the rich nostalgia of the Pre-Raphaelites to see them as anything other than the acceptable face of establishment art. Having missed the opening of the current show at Tate Britain, I paid a visit to the exhibition during the week and was hardly able to move for the throng. The Pre-Raphaelites, it seems, have lost none of their popular allure. But their works were not always a subject for tea towels and art shop merchandise but constituted an inventive avant-garde that not only tells us a good deal about the Victorian fear of modernity and industrialisation, but about the social order, attitudes to sexuality and the role of women in the mid-19th century.

Founded in 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a reaction to a recognisably modern world of dramatic technological and social change. In many ways there are parallels with our own times: the newly globalised communications, the rapid industrialisation and turbulent financial markets and the hitherto unprecedented growth in the expansion of cities that threatened old agrarian ways of life and the natural world. London, like now, was the centre of a world economic system. Traditional patterns were changing; the social order was in flux, feudal belief systems were crumbling. There was the rise of a new middle class, who were making their money from trade, as well as a decline in old religious certainties. This was the era that spawned Darwin and Nietzsche.

William Holman Hunt The Awakening Conscience 1853
William Holman Hunt
The Awakening Conscience 1853

It was in this shifting terrain that the young John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Homan Hunt joined forces, along with the slightly older Ford Madox Brown, who was never formally a part of their group but shared many of its aims. Looking back what characterises the Pre-Raphaelite movement is a desire to create an alternative future based on ideals gleaned from the past. The medieval world was seen as providing a set of values based on beauty and spirituality, which contrasted with what appeared to be the coarsening and debasement of life created by the new industrial cities. The Pre-Raphaelites turned to the past, to what was seen as ‘a golden age’, to find alternatives to the moral, political, social and aesthetic problems thrown up by modernity. The dignity of the ‘workman who struck the stone’, as John Ruskin described the medieval craftsman in The Stones of Venice , contrasted with the brutalisation of industrialised faceless labour and the mass market products that it was beginning to produce. Despite the apparent familiarity of their imagery today, through a thousand posters and cheap reproductions, the Pre-Raphaelite’s radicalism lay in a refusal to accept society and its established conventions. They held the belief that they could sow the seeds of social reform through attitudes to art and design and, that by returning to the uncorrupted art found in Italy and Northern Europe in the 15th century before the painter, Raphael (1483-1520), they could re-establish something pure and untainted. Both the Aesthetic Movement of the 1860s and the Art and Crafts movement have their roots embedded in Pre-Raphaelitism.

The very name of the Brotherhood declared a link with the distant past (distant enough that the inconvenient realities of disease, feudalism and poverty didn’t impinge too much on the imagination) to produce radically revivalist strains of writing, design and art that scandalised the Victorian world. Inspired in part by photography the Pre-Raphaelites developed a new language of pictorial meaning. In the forensic detail of the claustrophobic parlour in Holman Hunt’s The Awakening of Conscience, a ‘kept woman’ sees the error of her ways. Although the painting suggests an acknowledgement of the sexual exploitation and double standards of the times, it’s significant that it is the young woman who ‘sees the light’ and and the error of her ways, who is the one considered in need of saving, while the young roué remains apparently completely unreconstructed.

Women were essentially objects of display for most Victorians. They had little autonomy and their style of dress and passive mode all played a part in defining them as objects that would advertise their father’s or husband’s social status. They were depicted as static; sitting, reclining or standing pensively. Thus they became emblematic assertions of the idea that a woman’s ‘natural’ role was passive rather than active. It was a woman’s ability to be decorative that made her worthy of the attentions of the painter. The psychology of a woman who was only able to see herself through the eyes of others as an object of display is the wonderfully described character of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s dark novel, The House of Mirth.

John Everett Millais Ophelia 1851-2
John Everett Millais Ophelia 1851-2

A largely a male invention, Pre-Raphaelitism was initially premised on the exclusion of women. It was a movement where the image of the women as the seductress and femme fatale became central. Whilst the unconventional personal lives of many of the Pre-Raphaelites gave a whole new meaning to the word bohemian, women were, in fact, in a very subordinate role. Lizzie Siddal, known for her luxuriant red hair and pale skin, was the model for Millais’s immensely popular, Ophelia. Here, her necrophiliac beauty has something of the demure countenance of a Raphael Madonna. While posing she lay in a bathtub full of water. Millais painted her daily into the winter, filling in the blank space he had left on the canvas afteralready painting the surrounding landscape. Although he put lamps under the tub to warm the water they went out and the water slowly chilled. Millais didn’t seem to notice and Lizzie didn’t complain. Afterwards she became very ill, possibly with pneumonia, and her father held Millais responsible, forcing him to pay compensation for her doctor’s bills.

Though an accomplished artist in her own right Siddal’s life was to end tragically at the age of 32 with an overdose of laudanum,. Like the other Pre-Raphaelite muse, Jane Burden, who married William Morris, she came from a working-class family and Rossetti feared introducing her to his parents, while she was the victim of harsh criticism from his sisters. The knowledge that his family would never approve their marriage contributed to his continuing postponement of their nuptials. Siddal also believed, with some justification, that Rossetti would always look to replace her with a younger muse, which contributed to her depressive periods and ill health.

John Everett Millais Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop) 1849-50
John Everett Millais Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop) 1849-50

A strongly narrative movement, many Pre-Raphaelite paintings recast old stories in a new light. Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents created a rumpus by showing the Holy Family as everyday and working class amid the paraphernalia of the carpenter’s workshop. Such views followed current ideas of Christian socialism, where the poor could be redeemed not only through faith but by education or the dignity achieved by manual labour and honest toil. It’s no surprise that Rossetti and Brown, as well as Ruskin, taught art classes at the Working Men’s College and that Ruskin College in Oxford should owe its existence to this legacy.

Encouraged by Ruskin the Pre-Raphaelites looked to nature and natural history, which coincided with the Victorian enthusiasm for geology and botany, as a way of comprehending the present. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all,” wrote C.F. Alexander in his famous hymn of 1848. Many paintings such as Dyce’s Pegwell Bay underline humanity’s place in the natural order of things. In the foreground the painter’s family collects fossils and shells. The painting seems to show the pull between the old certainties of religious belief and the order of God’s universe, and the new insights brought about by science, taxonomy and collecting.

William Dyce Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858 1858-60
William Dyce Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858 1858-60

Looking again of these extraordinarily familiar paintings in this exhibition at Tate Britain, with their ‘shrill colours’, as the art historian Ernst Gombrich once described them, their rich interiors that defined class and social order, their pageantry and nostalgia, I was struck by the contradictions inherent within Pre-Raphaelitism that here was a movement that was trying to find radical answers to the problems of modernity, social upheaval and the role of women by returning to a highly romanticised notion of the past. In many ways it was not until the grim realities of the 1914-18 war impinged that the dream was finally over.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Britain until 13 January 2013

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
Images: © the Tate

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