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.
And then that curiosity in some way poses problems. Is there any central subject to Millais’s art? Isabella, the 1849 canvas that was his first Royal Academy submission as a Pre-Raphaelite (Millais at the time being only nineteen), tells a story from a Keats poem in an innovative but intelligible fashion, as the Tate catalog points out. (This outstandingly informative document is the work of Tim Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld, and Alison Smith. The latter two curated a Millais survey at the same address only five years previously.) And yet what lingers from the image is not its dramatic logic but isolated, obsessive passages: a man’s head looming soulfully forward, a napkin pressed to lips, a leg in white hose stretched out to kick. Visual specimens, again, seem the desideratum, and so they will throughout Millais’s youth.
But information collection can become a kind of delirium. The mass circulation of daguerreotypes, lithographs, and steel engravings would lead around 1860 to the advent of the photocollage and the scrap screen, forms in which female artists put to ridicule the whole image world of their day.4 From that date, the Tate curators bring in The Choice of Paris: An Idyll, a wicked watercolor response to Pre-Raphaelitism by the feminist Florence Claxton, which places a caricatured Millais in a compositional clutter parodying his older colleague’s “Early Xtians.” Millais’s narrative scenes of the 1850s fed John Tenniel’s Lewis Carroll illustrations of 1865 and at points, such as in a passionately daft Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, surpass them in absurdity.
How should an earnest male escape the condition of nonsense? For Millais the most congenial answer lay in reaching for the condition of music. From his later twenties on, he started to improvise compositions dictated by mood rather than informational exactitude. The elegiac Autumn Leaves of 1855–1856, a reverie of girls standing at an evening bonfire, started the detour from his former symbol-choked naturalism. The move was paralleled in the slighter oeuvre of the third original Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti had never been much of a naturalist, but his early art tried to load confined spaces with meanings derived from his reading of old texts. An 1850 annunciation scene using his brother and sister as Gabriel and Mary packed dramatic tensions into a bleached and orthogonal, almost Mondrian-like interior. After this, drama more or less departed from his art, instead resurfacing in the nervy narrative watercolors of his model and lover Elizabeth Siddall.
Rossetti was an instinctual modernist, after a facile and amiable fashion: he would have accepted without any mental struggle the dictum of Maurice Denis about a painting being “essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” From assembling colors in mock-medieval schemes of symbolism, he switched after 1859 to arranging them into grandiose icons of femininity. Monna Vanna, Bocca Bacciata, Lady Lilith: euphonious titles for fruit-bowl-like extravaganzas of curvaceous forms, notionally reminiscent of belles by Titian and Palma Vecchio from three centuries before. His new production line fell in with and gave a face to the wider shift in cultural temper known as the rise of Aestheticism, or “the cult of beauty.”5 It is a turn from naturalist values that the curators of the exhibition place in a many-leveled setting.
With their complex, three-dimensional awareness of the era, it is a wonder that they so succeed in creating a persuasive visual argument. They manage to bring in not only contemporary photographs and graphic works, but the comparative example of the German Nazarenes, a slightly earlier groupuscule more seriously intent on turning the clock back in art; the then cult figure of William Blake, revered by Rossetti; and the Scottish painter William Dyce, an intellectual superior to the Pre-Raphaelites working independently of them in London. Besides many of the founders’ pictorial camp followers, they also invite in some fainthearted attempts to apply a Pre-Raphaelite ethos to sculpture.
Half offstage hovers John Ruskin, the critic who sprang to the group’s defense in 1851. Little read by Hunt or Millais, Ruskin’s precepts about the depiction of nature did influence landscapists such as John Brett, working in their wake. And then in a later phase of Ruskin’s writing, beginning in the late 1850s, he expanded his terms of reference radically. Nature and pictures got subsumed within the wider environment—social, moral, political—that Ruskin pointed toward with the word “life.”
Rossetti, the man who had first talked Hunt and Millais into forming a Pre-Raphaelite “Brotherhood,” had a separate yet convergent interest in art and environments. He was in favor of a Greater Bohemia. Cliques, poems, paintings, “stunners” (beautiful women)—they all pointed in the same romanticizing direction. A half-baked scheme Rossetti launched for painting frescoes in Oxford in 1857 led to his joining forces with two Ruskin-reading young designers, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. That conjunction is where the Pre-Raphaelite tree starts properly to fork. The complexity of the ensuing history is that with the introduction of Morris and the later Ruskin, the issue of beauty enters hand in hand with that of politics. We leave the framed compartments within which Pre-Raphaelites had formerly set down whatever radical sympathies they entertained. With Morris’s designs for furniture, tapestries, and carpets, we step into a proposed new world, an environment to be wholly aestheticized.
But this transition, with its large implications for cultural history to follow, proves hard to represent in an exhibition that has given priority to painting. Between the galumphingly bold rhythms laid out across the twenty square yards of Morris’s “Peacock and Bird Carpet” and his Marxian agitprop pamphlet of much the same date—Monopoly; or, How Labour Is Robbed, here seen displayed in an adjacent case—there inevitably yawns a huge gap of connecting social realities.
Instead, the last rooms of the exhibition are dominated by the designs of his friend and associate Burne-Jones, whose art comes as an astonishing climax. Even when he uses oils, his work never feels like painting, not at least in any sense of the term introduced after the era of his idol Botticelli. Rather, his monumental images, with their crinkly surface textures, their wan ideal figures, and their perpendicular regimentation, transport us to a zone quite beyond the easel and the art gallery. They demand to be housed in some form of grand ritual architecture. A church? A hall? Whatever the setting might be, religious or political, they would be subverting it. But to resolve that question by suggesting that Burne-Jones produces “art for art’s sake” merely begs others. It is no more helpful than his own exasperatingly precious remarks: “I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be, in a light better than ever shone.” Or: “Pictures are too good to be funny. Literature’s good enough for that.”
How then does the art of Morris’s shrewd, whimsical, and unheroic business partner come by its authority and impact? For surely his twenty-four-by-eight-foot tapestry The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval is not only the largest but the most viscerally exciting exhibit in the show (see illustration on page 14). The weaving, one of six produced for a mining magnate’s sham-Gothic mansion in the early 1890s (making it among the final items in the show’s chronology), was bought in 1978 by the rock guitarist Jimmy Page, and one might lean on that for an answer. Some musical principle must be at work in this sequencing, variation, and repetition of forms, heading left to right to a crescendo. Perhaps Burne-Jones is doing to earlier Victorian Gothic what Led Zeppelin did to 1960s rhythm and blues: simplifying, amplifying, and bunching its components so as to open out a grander, more stupefying—or, you might say, more stupefied—imaginative space.
With regard to this specific design, a letter of Burne-Jones’s corroborates the hypothesis, citing the obvious nineteenth-century analog. “I heard Wagner’s Parsifal the other day…. He made sounds that are really and truly (I assure you, and I ought to know) the very sounds that were to be heard in the Sangraal Chapel.” And yet Burne-Jones’s wife, who quotes the letter in a memoir, assures us that “he did not, as a rule, love Wagner’s music.” There is an alternative handle one might reach for, faced with these terrifying angels, no less uncanny forests, this epicene Galahad, and the Sangraal Chapel’s pregnant ceiling oozing blood. Burne-Jones, one might say, is in need of a session with the psychoanalyst.
But of course that would be putting the issue upside down. What he is actually doing, working as of 1890 alongside a pan-European generation of Symbolists, is creating the imaginative conditions that will make Freudianism possible. He is an artistic pioneer, pushing his way into psychic territory later to be fenced in and signposted by the men in white coats. The material that they will have to work on has very largely been shaped by Burne-Jones and his fellow dreamers. And why has that generation taken to exploring—or inventing—the unconscious? Because the reach of the conscious will, extended to scour the world for information, looks like it has hit a dead end. The fate of Pre-Raphaelitism proper seems to demonstrate that.
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. ↩
The Metropolitan Museum staged an exhibition on this theme in 2010: “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage,” curated by Elizabeth Siegel. ↩
“The Cult of Beauty” was the title of a 2011 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, exploring the phenomenon. ↩