London: Tate Publishing, 256 pp., £24.99 (paper)
Two missionaries are fleeing a murderous mob. A Druid priest whips up the frenzy, for we are in ancient, heathen Britain, a land of megaliths and human sacrifice. Racing across the greensward, the natives are just catching up with one chasuble-clad Christian, but the other—and here we enter the picture proper—has sought refuge in the riverbank hut of a convert family. That wooden shack opens up before us, a shallow box almost coextensive with the four-foot-seven-inch-wide canvas. The hue and cry on the plains beyond can only be glimpsed through a horizontal strip of window and two other upright strips, running either side of a door held ajar by the missionary’s defenders.
He and they fill up the hut, packing rigidly into its corners like a human truss frame. The artist, William Holman Hunt, has scrutinized the nine figures exhaustively. Just as he fixes on the physical minutiae of an earthenware bowl, bark peeling from a birch post, and rushes rising from the stream, he examines the spread of robes and flesh stitch by stitch, vein by nail. The remorselessness of his attention is at one with the fierce sunlight to which the hut’s contents are exposed: it is half as if the stricken missionary has collapsed beneath that glare. But equally, his lot might be the painter’s own: for both, it is plain, are men of zeal, and such faith as theirs can never come easy, here in truth-resistant Britain.
Holman Hunt was just twenty-three in 1850, the year that London’s Royal Academy exhibited A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids. In his canvas, begun the previous summer, a fervor generated among a tiny group of ardent young Londoners pulses out at maximum intensity. The name adopted by this group, which included Hunt’s friends John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, would come however to designate a vast, three-decade swathe of nineteenth-century visual culture, embracing artists as radically dissimilar as Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones.
As a result the curators of “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde,” Tate Britain’s new survey of the phenomenon, face a daunting challenge of organization. This they resolve magnificently. The exhibition is not only compendious, bringing together almost every major innovative painting of mid-nineteenth-century Britain along with work in a host of other media. It is provocative. It throws aside hackneyed approaches to an often derided phase of cultural history and comes up with something fresh. Recasting the group as an “avant-garde” turns out to make very good sense. At the same time, in saluting the Pre-Raphaelites’ investment in modern tendencies, the show returns us to their ongoing angularity. For somehow, the works of Hunt and his associates still have it in them to make viewers wince.
The organizers’ task is significantly complicated by the odd structure the art history presents. Pre-Raphaelitism resembles a tree that forks not far above its roots so that one trunk heads up vertically while the other, at a tangent, arrives at a more flourishing crown. That secondary growth, epitomized by the work of Burne-Jones, veers a long way off indeed from the straight path maintained by Hunt. At least in the “Early Xtians” (Hunt’s own nickname for the missionaries canvas1), we get to meet the main bole near ground level. What, then, was distinctive about the original Pre-Raphaelite project, as pursued by the group’s most didactic member?
Art historians talk of how Italian Renaissance perspective made it possible to think of a painting as a window, and likewise of how many eighteenth-century painters adapted painting to the model of the proscenium stage. What Hunt introduces us to is the painting as a specimen case. He is passionately concerned with “nature”—that being his abiding watchword—but his concern is that of a naturalist collector. He busies himself to obtain samples of physical appearance—reeds and vine leaves and a stream bed observed in the Lea marshes, a few miles out of town, a neolithic dagger from the British Museum, plus paintings of heads, arms, and legs that friends have posed for in the windowlight of his London garret. The individual poses to which these items are attached conform to academic history painting, but what is new is the way the ensemble has been set in place in its shallow container. Look at all I’ve managed to pin down, the artwork proclaims.
It is a janglingly self-conscious operation. The glare, the pressure of looking into the box and down on the objects it contains, objects fit for analysis, is strenuous. Seeking to escape it and, by his own account,2 to engage more deeply with nature, Hunt expanded his design to take in the margin of open land on the far right. But doesn’t that simply end up as a further pinned-down specimen of appearance? Conundrums of this type will appear again and again in his own work and in work produced under his influence.
What had pushed Hunt toward this novel approach to picture-making? The exhibition curators suggest some possible influences. Hardly less than our own, the mid-nineteenth century was an age of information. On one side was chemistry. It presented painters with the challenge of the daguerreotype and at the same time with the seducement of vibrant new pigments—emerald greens, cobalt blues, and alizarin crimsons, resources on which they would splurge. On another, there was history. Interpreting European painting in terms of “schools” and eras had become a growth industry in the two decades since London’s National Gallery had opened its doors in 1824. In particular, the curators suggest, one National Gallery holding offered the key to Hunt and his associates, in the absence of any commanding contemporary master: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434. The Pre-Raphaelites are more truly the Post-Eyckians.
That richly colored, miraculously detailed interior from the earnest and “primitive” fifteenth century attracted them as a kind of super-daguerreotype. In addition, its contents might be interpreted as a catalog of nuptial symbols. The young London painters wished to reactivate that type of mental operation, which they felt had long been sidelined in an art world too content with superficial painterly effects. They planted their compositions with cues for reading: for instance Hunt, hanging a fishing net from that birch post, nudges the viewer who remembers that in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the first missionaries are “fishers of men.” Viewers soon became attracted to this type of iconographical invitation: probably it helped secure the London artists the patronage of northern industrialists, clients new to the art market but comfortably at home in Bible reading.
And then over and beyond this, van Eyck’s painting, with its rear-wall mirror reflecting the painter himself as a witness to the wedding being enacted, enfolds its viewers in an enclosed circle of self-consciousness. Subsequent paintings by Hunt fret over the possibility of such a total system, with its claustrophobic perfection. Female figures are imagined trapped in mirrored palaces of art in The Awakening Conscience, where a contemporary “kept woman” looks for an escape route from her sexual slavery, and in the huge, lugubriously elaborate Tennysonian fantasia The Lady of Shalott. In both, nature lies notionally somewhere just beyond reach, but gets traduced as soon as art tries to express the fact.
A similar paradox underlay Hunt’s projects for religious art. The more he pursued Jesus, whether on specimen-collecting missions to Palestine or in the homelier imagery of The Light of the World—a savior knocking at the heart’s disused door—the more his own ego got reflected back at him. It is hard to imagine the heart’s door opening to any of Hunt’s homilies, for his own mechanical brushwork leaves it jammed in a terminal rictus. These images meant much to contemporary viewers—Victorian Britain, it turned out, was anything but resistant to the truths Hunt had to tell—but now they feel as alien as druidic sacrifices, pitching us into a grim dead end of the nineteenth-century imagination.
The Eyckian mirror alternately reappears in “Take Your Son, Sir,” an unfinished assemblage of a painting—seven scraps of joined canvas—begun circa 1851 by Ford Madox Brown (see illustration on page 16). Brown, six years older than Hunt, had switched from his Continental academic training to the new naturalist-collector method with the passion of a convert. His expeditions into the English countryside became fanatical in their devotion to observed color relations, introducing the vibrant green shadows and skies of saturated cobalt later normalized by Impressionism. Brown’s glass cases of frozen fact risk absurdity—a leaping lamb and a wind-flapped scarf get arrested in mid-motion, so that every particle of their surfaces may be itemized—but it is a fine quixotic absurdity, taken on in good faith. The “son” in the assemblage is his own. His wife thrusts the infant—drawn at ten weeks old—directly at the viewer, who a mirror behind her reveals to be the artist. The self-referentiality becomes poignant when you learn that the picture was abandoned because the child died at ten months.
Without that information, the image approaches Courbet’s Origin of the World in its stark materialist aggression.3 This flesh, it yells, is the fact: nothing else. It strikes up a surprise linkage between van Eyck and London’s recent shock specialists, Damien Hirst and Ron Mueck. The emotional attack proceeds above all from the teeth Brown’s wife reveals as she commands him to take his offspring. Jabbing forward from her tired, flushed face, they are pegs on which a whole working knowledge of life—life as toil and care, life as unending tension—gets dangled.
Brown is the Master of the Awkward Grimaces. His people are forever anxious and inelegant. In his Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, the former’s acute muscular effort is pitted against the latter’s acute personal embarrassment. Such tremors of realist empathy kept Brown’s descriptive efforts from rigidifying, even as he delivered the most exhaustive of all pictorial museums, the panorama of laborers and passersby on a contemporary suburban street that took him eleven years to paint and that he entitled—surely, once more, self-referentially—Work.
Brown, aesthetically jagged and studious in his spatial ingenuities, remained in his own time a painter’s painter rather than a national phenomenon. A very different fate awaited Hunt’s great friend John Everett Millais. The younger of the two “Early Xtians” (the painting’s nickname was also the duo’s) would move on from missionary avant-gardism to establishment portraiture—one celebrity saluting others—by way of enormous public enthusiasm. How this came about is no mystery. By any standards specific to the art of painting, Millais is the best artist in this show. By that, I mean that he works with an impulsive, empathetic love for appearances and for his materials. His creations breathe the life denied to the didactic Hunt’s. He relishes the rich deep glazes of green, brown, and purple his brushes can conjure up: he can adapt their rhythms to the textures of straw, or velvet, or pondweed; he adores a face for what it is, for whoever it is. His curiosity about the world and about art matches his explorativeness in technique: he switches from plein air landscape in oils to designing a mannered medieval grotesquerie or a satire on a contemporary horse race meeting. There is something joyous and primal about his power of attention.
1 The phrase is used in an 1872 letter from Hunt to Edward Lear; see Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné (Yale University Press, 2006), Vol. 1, pp. 134–136. ↩
2 “As I worked out my composition it was apparent to me that the regulation size of the Academy canvas would not allow me to add to the central group a margin, most precious in my eyes, on which to paint from nature the landscape outside the hut....” William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (London: Macmillan, 1905), Vol. 1, p. 173. ↩
The phrase is used in an 1872 letter from Hunt to Edward Lear; see Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné (Yale University Press, 2006), Vol. 1, pp. 134–136. ↩
“As I worked out my composition it was apparent to me that the regulation size of the Academy canvas would not allow me to add to the central group a margin, most precious in my eyes, on which to paint from nature the landscape outside the hut….” William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (London: Macmillan, 1905), Vol. 1, p. 173. ↩