Birmingham Museums Trust/American Federation of Arts

Frederick Sandys: Medea, 1866–1868

It’s common for restive artists to conclude that the current generation has lost its way—less common, perhaps, to look back more than four hundred years for a solution. When a small band of would-be reformers met at the London house of John Everett Millais in 1848 and emerged as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they were deliberately rejecting not just the work of their most prominent contemporaries but a long-established consensus on the development of European art. (In addition to Millais, the original PRB, as it styled itself, included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William, who would later help document the movement, the painters William Holman Hunt and James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and the future critic Frederic George Stephens.) Though Raphael’s influence dated back to the sixteenth century, the idea that painters should follow rules derived from his practice had hardened into orthodoxy after Sir Joshua Reynolds delivered his Discourses (1769–1790) to the Royal Academy.

Hunt’s retrospective account of the movement contended that it was those rules, rather than Raphael himself, that had proved the stumbling block—“Pre-Raphaelitism,” he said, “is not Pre-Raphaelism.” The group’s principal champion, John Ruskin, insisted that “nature only” was their model. But there is no question that nature, as the Brotherhood saw it, was heavily mediated by art, especially that of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Victorian Radicals, the catalog of an exhibition drawn from the collections of the Birmingham Museums and currently traveling to multiple venues in the US, begins its story with those it calls, paradoxically, “the pre-Raphaelite avant-garde”: artists who led the way by rediscovering the achievement of predecessors who had often been dismissed as primitive.

The initial impetus of the PRB was more aesthetic than political. But because of the group’s identification with Ruskin, who brooked no such distinction, and their influence on subsequent artists like William Morris, Victorian Radicals assimilates them into a broader history of resistance to industrial capitalism in Britain, a movement that itself sought to transform present conditions by looking to the past. The catalog pays tribute to three generations of artists for whom the growth of places like Birmingham, and all it represented, was anathema. The contributors to the volume recognize the irony, even as they recount how a city known for its manufacturing boom and scorned by a German visitor in 1842 as “a very desert” for fine arts became home to one of the strongest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world, as well as a major center for the craft revival at the turn of the century.

Repelled by what he called “the depressing and monotonous circumstances of English manufacturing life,” Ruskin found his ideal antithesis to the depredations of the factory system in the unalienated labor of the medieval craftsman. This was also the ideal that lay behind the decorating firm Morris founded with several other artists in 1861, as well as the broader Arts and Crafts movement it inspired. Not all sympathizers with the movement shared Morris’s increasing commitment to socialism. But the spirit of communal production persisted, as did the firm’s program of design reform.

One reason Birmingham proved so accommodating to the reformers was that its industry had typically been based in small workshops, rather than large factories as in Manchester. Another was a tradition of local activism rooted in liberal politics, which aided in establishing the city’s first public library and art gallery in the 1860s, followed in 1885 by the simultaneous opening of the present museum buildings (the gallery now folded in) and the nearby Municipal School of Art. It also helped—eventually—that Morris’s main partner was a disaffected native of Birmingham, Edward Burne-Jones.

Burne-Jones had long sought to keep as clear of his birthplace as possible. By 1877, however, a rapprochement was underway, signaled most immediately by the installation of a stained-glass window he had designed for Morris & Co. in a church in the center of town. Further commissions for stained glass followed, including a magnificent Last Judgment for the city’s cathedral. A loan exhibition of eleven Burne-Jones paintings accompanied the opening of the new Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 1885, and two years later the museum commissioned its first work by the artist for its permanent collection—an acquisition celebrated in 1891 with a major show of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings, the largest to date.

As is so often the case, the radicals were being underwritten by the forces they ostensibly opposed, since the chief benefactors of the Birmingham museum, like many individual patrons of Pre-Raphaelite art, were wealthy industrialists. Morris founded a press dedicated to the art of the handmade book, but that didn’t prevent his fellow artists from relying on advances in printing technology for the distribution of engravings after their work. Nor did the radicals’ critique of industrialization extend to the coloristic possibilities afforded by synthetic dye: the catalog particularly notes the newly available “intense pinks, greens, and purples” that distinguished the Pre-Raphaelites’ palette. As late as 1894, however, Burne-Jones was still wryly claiming his place in an alternate history. “Birmingham is my city according to the facts,” he told a critic, “but in reality Assisi is my birthplace.”


That “reality”—true to the imagination rather than fact—points to a central difficulty in assessing the Pre-Raphaelites’ legacy. According to Ruskin, they wanted nothing more than to paint with the greatest accuracy possible. “As far as in them lies,” he insisted, “they will either draw what they see, or what they suppose to have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making.” This is a defense of realism that affords considerable room for making things up. The Pre-Raphaelites often painted historical pictures, including sacred ones, from contemporary models, without attempting to idealize or prettify the results.

Some of the outrage that greeted their early work appears to have been triggered by this practice: Charles Dickens, for example, notoriously tore into Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–1850), denouncing the Christ as “a blubbering red-haired boy in a nightgown” and its Virgin as “a kneeling woman so horrible in her ugliness that…she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or in the lowest gin-shop in England.” Millais’s painting, which hangs in the Tate, does not appear in Victorian Radicals, but the catalog does include Hunt’s The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1854–1860), for which the artist traveled to the Holy Land in search of ethnographic accuracy, only to find himself compelled to model his rabbis after Jews in London when those in Jerusalem refused to sit for him, and to adapt the temple itself from a replica of the Alhambra at the Crystal Palace.

Other pictures tackled modern life more directly: the fatal trajectory of a prostitute in Rossetti’s unfinished Found, for instance—here represented by three early sketches—or the exploitation of labor in Henry Wallis’s The Stone Breaker (1857), with its solemn image of a worker’s corpse set against the dying light of the sun. Such pictures also, of course, “suppose…the actual facts”: they are staged genre paintings, not direct transcriptions of a scene. Presumably it is works like these to which Tim Barringer refers in his catalog essay when he speaks of the “searing visual representations of the real” that constitute one dimension of Pre-Raphaelite radicalism. They remain, however, a distinct minority in the catalog as a whole, which is far more given to the fanciful and decorative impulses in the art of Rossetti and his successors.

Though Ruskin liked to pretend that the Pre-Raphaelites had simply discarded pictorial convention for the direct observation of nature, modern scholarship has instead emphasized how much they learned about looking from their visits to the museum—especially after the arrival of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait at the National Gallery in 1842. Elizabeth Prettejohn has recently argued that Rossetti taught himself to paint by imitating what he understood of Van Eyck’s method, as the Portrait’s unmixed color, meticulously rendered detail, and high finish became a model for Pre-Raphaelite realism.1

Yet the sense of reality conveyed by a picture in this style is of a very peculiar kind. Perhaps inspired by the ringing exhortation with which Ruskin had concluded the first volume of Modern Painters (1843)—“go to Nature in all singleness of heart…rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing”—many Pre-Raphaelite paintings seem determined to keep every detail of the image simultaneously in focus, as if privileging some portions of the canvas over others would mean succumbing to conventional hierarchies of value. The same careful notation of individual features that proves so convincing in an isolated sketch, like the preparatory drawings of grasses and ivy by Frederick Sandys reproduced in Victorian Radicals, turns hallucinatory when used throughout an entire painting.

Citing the Ruskin passage in an entry on Ford Madox Brown’s Walton-on-the-Naze (1859–1860), Barringer observes how “the landscape is a catalogue of individual objects and features…each seen in perfect focus and with its own local color.” But Brown’s canvas, nearly half of which is devoted to an expanse of thinly striated clouds, looks positively atmospheric when compared to pictures like Hunt’s Finding of the Saviour or Arthur Hughes’s The Long Engagement (circa 1854–1859). Though Hughes’s painting is set outdoors, he deliberately keeps his space shallow, surrounding the engaged couple with an outgrowth of precisely delineated foliage that appears to fill every available cranny. Barringer calls it “a remarkable demonstration of Pre-Raphaelite naturalism,” but to my eye the ultimate effect is distinctly unnatural: a heightening and intensification of ordinary vision rather than an attempt to evoke it on canvas. Such paintings more nearly resemble late-twentieth-century works of hyperrealism than they do anything by Ruskin’s favorite artist of the previous generation, J.M.W. Turner.


Unlike Turner, who fits with comparative ease into a familiar history of modern art from the French Impressionists to Abstract Expressionism, the heirs of the Pre-Raphaelites are at once harder to trace and more various. Victorian Radicals concentrates primarily on the line that leads through Rossetti to the Aestheticism of Morris and Burne-Jones—with its heightened emphasis on visual pleasure, on art for art’s sake rather than for representational or didactic purposes—and thence to the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished in turn-of-the-century Birmingham. One might also link Burne-Jones in particular to Art Nouveau and virtually the entire company to the Symbolists and Surrealists. Victoria Osborne notes a debt to Gustav Klimt in one of the last images of the exhibition, a watercolor of an elongated figure by the twentieth-century Birmingham painter Maxwell Ashby Armfield titled, after some lines by Algernon Swinburne, Where the silence is more than all tunes… (1902); but Klimt is himself anticipated by a picture like Sandys’s Medea (1866–1868), with its stunning femme fatale against a gold-leaf ground, begun only four years after the Viennese Symbolist’s birth (see illustration on page 29). And then there’s a trajectory briefly invoked by Barringer’s catalog essay that leads to “many of the twentieth century’s utopian enterprises, from the founding of the British Labour Party to Bauhaus design theory and even Mahatma Gandhi’s political philosophy”—though in the case of Gandhi, at least, what connects him to the artists here is a shared admiration for Ruskin’s critique of alienated labor rather than a taste for European painting before Raphael.

It’s all the more striking, then, that in one respect these radicals scarcely broke with tradition at all: their continued bias toward the literary. The academic doctrine according to which history painting ranked at the very top of the hierarchy and still life at the bottom had its origins in a long-standing privileging of head over hand that the Pre-Raphaelites never really repudiated, despite their connections to later craft movements. “Above all, they determined these pictures should at least mean something,” Stephens had written of them in 1860; and to judge by the works collected here, that determination persisted well beyond the PRB’s early years, and even beyond the making of pictures itself.

Not every image in Victorian Radicals tries to “mean something” in Stephens’s sense, but most do, whether by invoking earlier literature (the Bible, Greek mythology, and Arthurian legends are particular favorites) or by implying narratives and constructing allegories. Still life is nonexistent, landscape and portraiture comparatively rare, unless one counts paintings like Medea, Simeon Solomon’s Bacchus (1867), or the Birmingham version of Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (“blessed Beatrice”), completed by Brown with a different model after the artist’s death, and like the others purporting to represent not a living person but a figure from literature or myth.

Private Collection

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Portrait of Christina Rossetti, 1866

Rossetti’s ambitions as a poet were every bit as intense as his desire to paint, and though he would partly cede the field to his sister Christina, he continued to produce work in both media throughout his career. One of the PRB’s first projects as a collective was a periodical called The Germ (1850), subtitled “Thoughts Towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art.” Though it folded after four numbers, its characteristic juxtapositions of word and image—every issue’s etching was accompanied by a poem—remained central to Pre-Raphaelite practice.

While there’s admittedly nothing literary about the glassware or the dresses featured in Victorian Radicals, other decorative objects display their affinities to literature: tiles designed by Burne-Jones with figures from fairy tale and myth; a wooden chest ornamented in gold leaf, also by Burne-Jones, that has a scene from the Garden of the Hesperides on its front panel and poetry by Morris carved in relief at either end; even a bedcover embroidered by a teacher of needlework named Mary Jane Newill with quotations from an ode by William Wordsworth.

Newill, whose bedcover dates from 1908, is among a number of women who appear in the catalog, especially as it approaches the Arts and Crafts movement. Although women were by definition excluded from the Brotherhood, they were influential in the Pre-Raphaelite circle too, as Barringer remarks in a passing tribute to the wasted talents of Rossetti’s model and later wife, Elizabeth Siddall.

The index for Victorian Radicals has no entry for Christina Rossetti, however, despite Gabriel’s having originally invited his younger sister to join the literary club that would morph into the PRB and his publishing several of her poems—first anonymously and then under a pseudonym—in three of The Germ’s four issues. When not yet eighteen, she agreed to marry another Pre-Raphaelite painter, James Collinson, though the engagement was broken off two years later, apparently on the grounds of religious difference. (Unlike Christina, James was a Catholic.) She also modeled for the Virgin Mary in two of Gabriel’s early canvases and—more surprisingly—for the face of Christ in Hunt’s much-reproduced picture The Light of the World (1851–1853), as well as the figure of a fallen woman covering her face in shame in a pen-and-ink drawing by Gabriel. In her early twenties, Christina herself studied art, presumably with the hope of teaching drawing at a day school she had recently opened with her mother. Though that prospect never materialized, she continued to produce small emblematic drawings for her own purposes, adding such “scratches,” as she called them, to both her manuscripts and printed books.

Several of the Pre-Raphaelites, including Gabriel, provided images to accompany her early poems; Hughes painted two pictures inspired by her work and went on to illustrate her books for children; Julia Margaret Cameron and Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) each inscribed a photograph with a quotation from her verse. A few years before her death in 1894, the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff borrowed her words to title two haunting images, Who Shall Deliver Me? and I Lock My Door Upon Myself; the latter was exhibited in London and in turn prompted Edward Hughes (nephew of Arthur) to substitute a brief quotation from another of her poems for the title of his own Christina-haunted picture, “Oh what’s that in the hollow, so pale I quake to follow?”/“Oh that’s a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.”

The editors of Christina Rossetti: Poetry in Art—which is advertised as the first book to bring this material together—are surely right to argue that she composed her work in an atmosphere saturated with visual art. But unlike her brother, Christina appears never to have breathed easily in that air. A profoundly committed Christian, as Gabriel was not, and a finer poet, she nonetheless lacked what might be called his incarnational aesthetic. “I am afraid you find art interfere[s] with the legitimate exercise of anguish,” an exasperated Gabriel was already complaining when she was still in her early twenties, after she refused his offer to teach her. But the conflict between anguish and art—visual art, at least—only intensified with her growing asceticism. She didn’t reject images, obviously, but the evidence suggests that she grew increasingly wary of their appeal.

In one of her best-known and most disturbing poems, “Goblin Market” (1862), the temptation to see, hear, and taste almost destroys a young woman, who is only saved by her sister’s willingness to confront that same temptation in her place. What the goblins are peddling is luscious fruit, and the dominant metaphor is hunger, but Rossetti’s incantatory language scarcely distinguishes among the promised tastes, the sound of the goblin cries, and the look of the fruits on offer:

Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather…
Come buy, come buy.

The voluptuous intensity with which “sweet-tooth” Laura eagerly devours the goblin fruit—“She sucked and sucked and sucked the more/…She sucked until her lips were sore”—is matched by that of the strange ritual with which her sister both replicates and undoes this scenario of frenzied consumption. In order to save Laura, who is fading away from “baulked desire,” Lizzie ventures to the market in her place, where she manages to resist the goblins’ eroticized force-feeding, and returns, her body smeared with “forbidden” fruit, to offer herself up to her sister:

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me.

Consuming the fruit in this fashion proves at once poisonous and curative: though the juice is “wormwood to her tongue,” and Laura nearly dies of the experience, she awakes the next day restored to innocence. The poem concludes with both sisters safely married, their encounter with “the wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men” now a story they tell their children.

Rossetti’s enigmatic fairy tale has lent itself to a variety of interpretations, from an allegory of the nineteenth-century marketplace to a coded tale of lesbian desire. The drawing Gabriel provided for the frontispiece of Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) tends to encourage the latter reading, with its image of the two sisters, “Golden head by golden head,” locked in each other’s arms. In 1973 Playboy published a set of colored illustrations of the poem by the artist and commercial illustrator Kinuko Craft in which she predictably made such erotic undertones more explicit, even as she knowingly alluded to a previous set of illustrations produced by Arthur Rackham forty years earlier. Stephen Calloway’s chapter on book illustration records, in addition to the Playboy version, a graphic novel of 1984, represented here by an image of the bare-breasted sisters embracing. Rossetti’s original title for the poem was “A Peep at the Goblins,” and subsequent artists clearly found it a powerful incitement to voyeurism.

Rossetti herself, however, often seemed bent on resisting the pleasures of the visible. The poem that later inspired Khnopff’s evocative images was composed only two years after “Goblin Market,” but its renunciatory stance is typical of the devotional writing that would eventually dominate her work. Titled after a passage from Romans (“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”), the poem both pleads for God’s help in bearing the “weight” of the self and defiantly announces its determination to wall out everything else: “I lock my door upon myself,/And bar them out; but who shall wall/Self from myself, most loathed of all?” Whether or not such self-loathing was intensified in Rossetti’s case by the lingering effects of sexual abuse, as her biographer Jan Marsh has plausibly speculated,2 the impulse registered by the poem hardly seems compatible with what Barringer calls, in Victorian Radicals, the Pre-Raphaelites’ “revelation of the profusion and chromatic splendor of the natural world.”

One of the few illustrations of her work that the poet apparently singled out for praise is an etiolated drawing by Charles Ricketts designed to accompany the publication of a late poem entitled “An Echo from Willowwood” (1890). In the poem, “two wistful faces craving each for each” gaze upon their reflections in a pool of water, their imminent parting rendered visible, paradoxically, when “a sudden ripple” disturbs the water’s surface and causes their images “to vanish out of reach.” Ricketts’s drawing responds to this disappearing act with a delicate “filigree”—the word is his—of semi-abstract forms that swirl around two bodiless faces, one chastely applying his lips to the other’s cheek and both rendered in lines even more finely drawn than the rest of the image. It’s a visual artist’s solution to an art in which the Word finally trumps the lure of images.