Update 2: Victorian Visionaries: Across the Pond – Part 2

I have recently returned to Virginia (which is quite a bit hotter and mosquito-ridden than England) to begin the painting portion of the project. However, I’ll finish up with a recap of my historical findings in London. I traveled to the city to experience the Pre-Raphaelites in their natural habitat, and understand how and why this movement arose in Victorian London. I linked seven basic principles which guided Pre-Raphaelite art to various locations:

The PRB Manifesto, Romance and Tragedy, History and Literature, Nature, Spirituality, Beauty, and Modern Life.

I explored topics one through three in my first post, here: http://upperclassmonroe.blogs.wm.edu/2016/06/17/post-1-victorian-visionaries-across-the-pond-part-1/

Map of London Sights

Map of London Sights

Topic 4: Nature

“Go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly… rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing” (Modern Painters 283). Art critic John Ruskin offered this advice to artists to encourage a new egalitarian approach to landscape painting. Ruskin believed nature to be perfect, in all its richness and ugliness, and therefore deserved faithful representation in art.

5) Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford: An intricate drawing by Ruskin himself of geological formations in the Scottish highlands.

1) Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford: An intricate drawing by Ruskin himself of geological formations in the Scottish highlands.

 The Pre-Raphaelites embraced this ideal, transcribing every blade of grass and flower petal into their paintings. They took advantage of modern technology, using the expanding railway system to gain access to the countryside. There, they would paint in their desired environment with portable pig-bladders of paint, more than a decade before the Impressionists in France. I took their same train route to Oxford, right past the field in which Holman Hunt painted The Hireling Shepherd (1851).

These innovative scenes of nature, such as Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, portrayed nature without judgement.

These innovative scenes of nature, such as Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, portrayed the environment without judgement.

The rural English landscape was already the focus of many a Romantic artist, from Constable to Gainsborough. Like their forebears, the Pre-Raphaelites also sought it as reprieve from the subject of industrial city life. (It is curious that industry, the steam engine train, also helped them to reach these areas). They rejected the dewey tranquility of the earlier landscape paintings, using the land to represent allegorical truths instead.

At the Tate Britain, I toured their temporary exhibit, “Painting with Light”, which traced a comparison of the influence of photography on Victorian art and vice versa. This almost scientific documentation of nature seemed to go hand in hand the advent of photography. Many of the Pre-Raphaelites began to use photographs to sketch from, to document the feeling of light at an exact moment of day, or depict a rocky landscape that was difficult to paint in person.

Topic 5: Spirituality  

Religious art had practically disappeared after the Protestant Reformation under Henry VIII’s reign. Three hundred years later, however, debates were roiling over the role rituals and representation of the Church of England. The Oxford Movement gained traction, emphasizing a return to tradition, including religious imagery. Further demand for spiritual art grew when the English Catholics’ civil rights were reinstated in 1829. The public’s curiosity about this previously suppressed group was piqued, and the artists answered. The Pre-Raphaelites employed innovative compositions to represent biblical themes. Ecce Ancilla Domini! by Rossetti puts a twist on the Annunciation, a time-worn artistic biblical trope.

4) Tate Britain: Ecce Ancilla Domini

2) Tate Britain: Ecce Ancilla Domini!

Whereas Mary is usually depicted humbly submitting to God’s will, Rossetti shows us a young girl recoiling from the lily, suggesting her purity. Gabriel makes an almost violent entrance on fiery, winged feet and shocks with his half-hidden nakedness. The style itself, flattened and in an intimate setting, is reminiscent of Northern Renaissance work like that of Hans Memling. While Rossetti’s painting and Christ in the House of His Parents by Millais were not connected to Catholicism by any means, they were still regarded distastefully by the reactionary Protestants.

William Holman Hunt was the most deeply religious Brotherhood member. He saw artists as having the role of “high priest and expounder of the excellence of the works of the Creator”. I’m going to skip back to photography for a second. It had become an undisputedly effective method for getting natural verisimilitude in painting; it also fostered accuracy in other artistic aspects. When Holman Hunt traveled to the Holy Land, he took many photographs and used them as models for religious works. He upset many with his portrayals of the Holy Family as a Middle Eastern Jewish family in a landscape completely different from England’s. It was a radical, yet truthful re-imagining of faith, but as Hunt saw it, an even greater proof of God’s existence. Many church goers in 19th century England couldn’t imagine what the Holy Land looked like beyond their illustrated Bible. But I digress.

Hunt’s most well known work, and at one time the most-viewed painting in the world, is The Light of the World. It shows Jesus preparing to knock at a long-unopened door, grown over with weeds. The reference comes from Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.”

7) St. Paul's Cathedral: The Light of the World in the northern transept

3) St. Paul’s Cathedral: The Light of the World in the northern transept

The painting toured through Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia and millions of people paid to see it.















The knock at the door is symbolic of his own spiritual awakening, and Christ’s lantern spreads the light of faith in a dark world. The last and grandest version of the composition now hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral. When I saw it in person, during choral evensong, it seemed right at home. It also felt appropriate, as its creator, along with other PRB founder John Everett Millais, rest in the crypt below.

7) St. Paul's Cathedral: Sir John Everett Millais

3) St. Paul’s Cathedral: Sir John Everett Millais

7) St. Paul's Cathedral: William Holman Hunt

3) St. Paul’s Cathedral: William Holman Hunt












Topic 6: Beauty

Many felt that spirituality, but especially beauty, had been lost in the new machine-era. Cities like London packed in workers for the new factories which polluted the air, with poverty and illness running rampant. Some artists began to move away from moralizing art to delight in the purely visual, the beginnings of what would later be called the “Aesthetic Movement”. Rossetti and Millais, and even Holman Hunt to an extent, began to use looser brushstrokes and more pleasant subject matter. This began with Millais’ painting of Sophie Gray, a solitary, poetic portrait of a young girl. It was followed by Rossetti’s work, Bocca Baciata (1859).

Bocca Baciata by Rossetti: Copper-haired, long-necked women became a trademark of Rossetti’s work.

Bocca Baciata by Rossetti: Copper-haired, long-necked women became a trademark of Rossetti’s work.

The title, the “kissed mouth”, is sourced from the Decameron by Boccaccio, an early Italian poet. In many ways, the Pre-Raphaelites were still captivated by art and poetry before the Mannerist period. Rossetti admired the artist Botticelli, and even acquired some of his works. The Brotherhood studied the natural grace and lyrical beauty of Botticelli’s paintings, and were essential to the revived interest in his art in the 1800s.

4) The Victoria and Albert Museum: Portrait of a Lady at a Window by Sandro Botticelli (1470), later owned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s fantastic exhibit, “Botticelli Reimagined”, showcased the Renaissance artist’s work next to that of the Brotherhood’s. This underscored the origins of the Victorian “Cult of Beauty”. And with the cult came many buyers. After Rossetti’s initial harsh criticism in the early 1850’s, he refused to display publicly and instead sold only to private patrons. This was also due to the sensual and even taboo character of his paintings, like Bocca Baciata. 

9) Guildhall Art Gallery: Now property of the city, it holds pieces from the private collections of many Victorian elites

5) Guildhall Art Gallery: Now property of the city, it holds pieces from the private collections of many Victorian elites, including a few Rossetti’s

While this sort of work wasn’t fit for respectable eyes, the market for everyday “beauty” boomed. The visually harmonious and hand-crafted design became the domain of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. These two young students befriended Rossetti in the mid-1850’s. They shared an interest in medieval design, and worked on furniture and interior design that channeled Gothic beauty. Morris began his own corporation, creating tapestries and stained glass. Rather than use mass production, he collaborated with artisans to create high-quality goods meant to elevate public taste. 

9) The William Morris Museum: A small, hand-made stained glass design

6) The William Morris Museum: A small, hand-made stained glass design

Despite this evolution, I think beauty was a tenet of Pre-Raphaelite art from the very beginning. Their jewel-toned compositions full of emotional turmoil are striking in their brashness. I hope I can find a similar, honest aesthetic in my own compositions.

Topic 7: Modern Life

Finally, the Pre-raphaelites took much of their inspiration from the current state of society. I don’t think they could have called themselves rebels in good faith without critiquing the “system”. One of the best examples of this rejection of good form is found in the painting The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt. It depicts a mistress, or “kept woman”, who dallies with her lover. Her situation is mirrored by the cat in the corner, who has caught a bird and is about to break its wings. Oddly enough, it is a companion piece to the Light of the World, one of the best-loved Protestant images. The woman hears the knock at the door and rises from the man’s lap, realizing her mistaken ways. She looks towards the light of the garden beyond. The theme of the “fallen woman” was shocking and vulgar to most of polite society. Yet Hunt maintained that the truly repentant could always change their lives, man or woman.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

The fallen woman was of great interest to the Brotherhood, who knew first hand the prevalence of prostitution in London and often employed prostitutes as models. They believed that these women were not only beautiful, but also full of promise. Hunt took it upon himself to educate Annie Miller, one of these women, and later became engaged to her. Rossetti and Millais’ work encouraged female empowerment and even female sexuality, which was quite unwholesome.

The PRB often sympathized with the subject of labor and the working class. Ford Maddox Brown’s allegory of Work linked diligence and the common man to nobleness and even sacredness. The poor laborers are placed directly in the center, while the idle aristocrats remain in the shadowed background.

Just as art was no longer reserved for the nobility, the restrictions on artists themselves were falling away. Simeon Solomon, a later Pre-Raphaelite artist, was both gay and jewish. He was explored his faith and sexuality on the canvas. Millais’ The Bridesmaid critiques the lofty status of marriage. Rossetti created The Beloved, an ode to beauty of every shape and race, while the Civil War raged in the United States. All of this would have been unheard of in any previous era.

The Pre-Raphaelites went beyond their duty to Nature, Beauty and Spirituality to attempt to institute real change through social commentary. How much societal effect their art actually created is difficult to tell. Yet their artistic influence should not be underestimated. I believe they achieved what they set out to do: to change the course of British, and even Western, art and to rattle a few cages along the way.

4) Tate Britain: Millias looks out, paint palette and brushes in hand, over his city

2) Tate Britain: Millias looks out, paint palette and brushes in hand, over his city

This is just a brief overview of these topics. I will go into greater length with the finished product of my research. Also, there are many pieces in Northern England which I didn’t have time to see, but I’ll try to get back again someday!

Till next time!