2 December, 2012Issue 20.5The ArtsVisual Arts

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Pre-Raphaelite Ways of Life

Rosie Lavan

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
Tate Britain
12 September 2012 – 13 January 2013

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is Tate Britain’s autumn blockbuster, and it bears all the hallmarks we have come to expect from the major shows at the major galleries. It is huge, filling seven rooms, and it is busy: if you want to see Millais’s Ophelia (1851-2), or Rossetti’s The Beloved (1865-6)—as everyone does—you have to jostle to do so. One of the problems with these landmark exhibitions is that their sheer scale forecloses the possibility of getting to know or understand any of the works represented. Instead you risk coming away with a general sense of what the Pre-Raphaelites were “like”. In actuality, the Pre-Raphaelites were “like” lots of things, as this exhibition carefully shows, but it can be hard, both literally and metaphorically, to get past the greatness of the show and the scores of people who have come to see Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris, and Fanny Cornforth in their various roles as some of the most famous painted ladies of all time.

The ordering of the exhibition by its curators Alison Smith, Tim Barringer, and Jason Rosenfeld is roughly chronological. We begin in a room titled “Origins and Manifesto” which gathers works from the time of the Brotherhood’s founding by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt, in a house on Gower Street in 1848. The curators do well to indicate the rather wearisome contrived crypticness of these first “brothers” who, when they started to add the initials “PRB” to their paintings, neglected to explain to anyone what they stood for. Although of course it is hard for curators to strike the right balance between explanatory text and the art works that people have come to see, it would have perhaps been useful if they had explained that the PRB never actually wrote a formal manifesto. Given that the exhibition’s subtitle—Victorian Avant-Garde—explicitly privileges the original reactive departures these artists made when they formalised their collective ambitions into a movement, the curators might have dwelt more emphatically on their aims.

Those aims are instead stated in relation to the particular paintings in which they are best espoused. The curators stress the climate of contemporary social unrest in the 1840s as well as Gothic Revival architecture, the German Nazarene school, and, crucially, John Ruskin’s writings on art, as formative influences on the PRB. Millais and Hunt, we are told, witnessed a Chartist demonstration in 1848, and this social thread is woven throughout exhibition. Ford Madox Brown’s vast allegorical painting Work (1852-65) animates the figures that George Cruikshank would put in his 1867 illustration of the social structure, The British Beehive: street-sellers and honest navvies on a sunny street in Hampstead are observed by Thomas Carlyle and another “intellectual”, while a wealthy family in the background enjoy the shade of a tree. Work is shrewdly hung in a sequence of paintings which include Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (“The Carpenter’s Shop“) (1849-50) and Brown’s own Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852-6) which portray Christ as the child of working people, and as a strong and humble man, prepared to accept and carry out duties not associated with an elevated social position. These paintings prepare us for the ideal of socialist artisanship which William Morris, a later member of the PRB, espoused in his design and production of furniture, textiles, and decorative arts, and in his own left-wing writing. Morris’s work is well-represented towards the end of the exhibition. Alongside his designs for textiles and wallpaper are first editions of Chants for Socialists (1885) and his socialist utopia News from Nowhere (1890). There is also a small and charming photograph of Morris with Edward Burne-Jones, another PRB member. Taken in 1890 it is more like a family snap than anything else; the two men, by then in their late 50s, face the camera, Morris sitting upright on a bench and looking serious with folded arms, Burne-Jones leaning forward behind him with a trace of the tomfool in his smile.

Between them, the Pre-Raphaelites—Morris and Burne-Jones included—amassed a pile of broken hearts. The friendships were close but not always lasting; the famous models became wives and lovers. Effie Gray left her husband Ruskin for Millais; Rossetti married Elizabeth Siddall but made mistresses of Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris, wife of William. Burne-Jones had a ill-fated affair with his model, the Greek sculptor Maria Zambaco; his wife Georgiana, who appears in an unfinished 1883 portrait, is described by the curators as “long-suffering”. These passion narratives have been the subject of television adaptations: the BBC series Desperate Romantics (2009) was based on Franny Moyle’s group biography of the same name and also owed a great deal to the still more desperate 1975 BBC effort, The Love School.

It is refreshing, therefore, that the curators avoid over-emphasising the celebrity notoriety which has always been attached to the PRB. Instead they offer more subtle ways to consider gender and sexuality, which are inevitable preoccupations of the exhibition. The room titled “Salvation” considers the theme in social as well as spiritual terms. The fallen woman figures prominently. A series of paintings of this unfortunate type are hung between representations of her correlatives on heaven and earth—the Virgin Mary or the Angel in the House. Initially this juxtapositioning seems rather crude, but on reflection it emerges as a curatorial double bluff. The Victorians liked their moral exemplars to come in pairs. Think of all those female doublings in Victorian fiction: Rose and Nancy in Oliver Twist (1837), Becky and Amelia in Vanity Fair (1847-48), Dinah and Hetty in Adam Bede (1859), among others. You can’t have one without the other—or rather, you can’t indulge your fantasies about the wicked woman without proving you’re aware there’s a good woman too. It’s a pity Freud kept them waiting so long.

To illustrate this point, two paintings by Hunt owned by Thomas Fairbairn, an industrialist and art collector, are placed side by side to brilliant effect. The Children’s Holiday (1864) shows Fairbairn’s wife serving tea at an ornate table set in the grounds of their newly acquired country seat. The Awakening Conscience (1851-2), shows the mistress of a whiskered toff rise from his lap—in a drawing room rendered with extraordinary realism—as she is struck by an awareness of her transgression. James Roddam Spencer Stanhope depicts a very different interior in Thoughts of the Past (1858-9), in which a young woman tugs ruefully at her hair in her small room in Blackfriars; a client’s coins lie on the table and through her window we see the filthy Thames roll on. But the most grotesque example of these salvation-patronising narratives is seen in Rossetti’s unfinished Found (begun 1859), in which a drover bringing a calf to market in London sees his childhood love in her shut-eyed shame crouching on the pavement as he attempts to draw her to her feet. This subject held great appeal for Rossetti. He reworked his poem “Jenny”, with its tedious tripping rhyming tetrameter, a number of times during the twenty years after its composition in 1848. In this dramatic monologue, the speaker deliberates over his sympathetic attraction to “Lazy laughing languid Jenny, / Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea”. Rossetti considered the poem “the most serious thing I have written”, which is symptomatic of its intense self-referencing. Presumably The Police were trying to make a similar point 130 years later in “Roxanne”.

Another unfinished painting displayed nearby is deeply affecting. Brown’s “Take Your Son, Sir” (1851-6), shows his wife, Emma, in traditional Madonna pose, offering their newborn baby to his father. In a brilliant play on perspective, we see what Emma sees reflected in the convex mirror in the top left of the picture; there is Brown, arms outstretched, smiling at mother and child. But the mother’s expression is tired and strained and her lap around the baby is a huge white blank. The child Arthur died aged 10 months and Brown was never able to complete the painting.

A number of the women associated with the Pre-Raphaelite circle were artists in their own right, as the exhibition endeavours to demonstrate. A couple of Siddall’s pictures are displayed, including The Lady of Shalott (1853). The Lady of Shalott was a favoured subject for the Brotherhood, steeped as they were in Tennyson’s poetry and drawn to this story of a fated woman in their beloved Medievalised Camelot. You cannot help but feel that the project of reinstating the work of the women artists informed the caption which argues that Siddall’s Lady exercises some agency in turning to look at Lancelot and unleashing the curse which hangs over her: “she has elected to decide her own fate”. Rosa Brett received rather condescending tutoring from her artist brother John. She exhibited her beautiful painting of a horse-chestnut tree, The Artist’s Garden, at the Royal Academy in 1859 under the pseudonym Rosarius, concerned among other things about the response to a female artist. The introductory text for the room titled ‘Beauty’ argues that Cornforth ought to be seen as Rossetti’s collaborator in his later Aestheticist paintings, which adopted post-Raphaelite Venetian styles and abandoned narrative subjects in favour of concentration on the female face and form. These are noble and necessary claims, and they follow in a tradition of reclamation established in 1985 in Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. More recently, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour has run a special feature on the women artists represented in this exhibition. But the brothers, of course, still dominate. Size matters: one can’t help but be struck by how tiny the pictures by the women are in comparison. They could easily be missed, and Siddall’s rather naive pencil-drawn Lady would fit many times over inside the frame of Hunt’s Lady of Shalott (1905), in all her fin-de-siècle opulence.

Florence Claxton, 'The Choice of Paris: An Idyll', watercolour, 1860. Museum no. E.1224-1989, V&A

Some evidence of resistance to the androcentrism of the movement is offered in Florence Claxton’s satirical watercolour The Choice of Paris: An Idyll (1860), which caricatured the Brotherhood and their obsession with beauty and natural realism. Claxton campaigned on women’s issues, as did Josephine Butler, the pioneering campaigner who worked especially closely with the prostitutes whose plight became such a fetish for these artists. What are we to make, therefore, of Alexander Munro’s marble bust of Butler from 1855, also exhibited in the ‘Beauty’ room, one shoulder left suggestively bare by the garment which has slipped down her arm? A consideration of male sexuality in the exhibition would also have been valuable. It is certainly present: in the prone body of Henry Wallis’s dead Chatterton (1859); in Brown’s strong-armed Jesus, who was originally depicted naked from the waist up but a garment had to be painted on to save sensibilities; or in Burne-Jones’s smoky-eyed Perseus.

It is to the credit of the exhibition that these issues are allowed to remain so provocative. And it is appropriate that the work of a group of artists who were so keen to capture a psychological dimension in their representations should be so compellingly problematic in these regards for contemporary observers too, looking to make connections between the figures beyond the frames. Above all, though, the exhibition seeks to reassert the formal and technical radicalism of these artists. That radicalism emerges with striking plurality: in the reconfiguring of familiar religious subjects; in the Ruskinian fidelity to nature which had the Pre-Raphaelites painting in the open air a decade before the Impressionists; in their intense literary engagements which bring to life subjects from Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning; in their interest in photography’s flattening and framing of its subjects; and in their commitment to an aesthetics which could be at once for its own sake, as Rossetti had it, or invested into objects of use, as Morris believed. Perhaps surprisingly, then, one of the most completely representative exhibits is Morris’s bed. The seventeenth-century four-poster already belonged to Kelmscott Manor in Gloucestershire when Morris took the property for his summer home in 1871. (Indeed, its removal to the Tate is the first time it has left the house where it has stood for more than 400 years.) It has the Ruskinian virtue of having been manually made, and the decorative pelmet and bedspread were designed and embroidered with that Pre-Raphaelite commitment to the beauty of natural forms, stylised into pattern, by the family collective of Morris’s daughter May and his wife Jane. Away from those salacious biographies, the bed stands for another Pre-Raphaelite way of life.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.