Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood… nostalgic if entertaining crackpots: looking through wrong end of the telescope?

  • Oddly reactionary, Romantic, nostalgic, Mediaeval-revivalist (?!) 19th C (1848) British movement, when Britain & its Empire at forefront of the economic earthquake that was the Industrial Revolution.
  • In stark contrast to the momentous Modernist art revolution then commencing in France.
  • One country ran away from the New World, other embraced it.
  • But PRB was but one facet of general British 19th C escapist artistic reaction: eg along with Aestheticism and Gothic revival!

wse 27 may 2015

Summary: Romantic throwbacks? If entertaining.

The PreRaphaelites I have never liked. A very odd bunch! Basically throwbacks, nostalgic, deluded Romantic dreamers, looking back from a booming mid 19th C Victorian England – when the pivotal Industrial Revolution, and the British Empire, were in full swing – to a fanciful elaborate escape into the long ago.

Like many Left supporters today, they were safe from the material travails of the poorer masses, mostly self-indulgent (selfish?) „middle-class“ Elitists.

They were a product of the rise of Romanticism which began late 18th C, as reaction to Reason / Enlightenment / the Science Revolution, then to the vulgar Industrial Revolution. But they were a harmless entertaining indulgence, while later in the 19th C Romanticism on the Continent had far more serious consequences when it spilled over into an intolerant visceral Nationalism, infecting extremist German thinking (after Bismarck unified G), lapped up by the Nationalist loonies who morphed into the Nazi movement.

Summary: out of step with a revolutionary age!                

There is a head-shaking almost unfathomable irony in how the PRB saw themselves as reformist! Rebuffing the „Sloshua“ Reynolds inspired Royal Academy (f 1768), the Establishment. But in the very year (1848) of political revolts across Continental Europe – and of Marx’s portentous Communist Manifesto! – they launched a perversely reactionary movement, revolutionary only in old sense of circling back.

There was hypocritical irony too how they were patronised by the offending – but wealthy! – new industrialists! Like Thomas Fairbairn.

The latest (2012/13) big Tate show (the last in 1984) tried a revamp, a new look, but perverted the truth to sell tickets, way off beam? Billing them quite misleadingly as Avant-garde, implying Modernist progress? Thus they claimed the PRB: „.. self-consciously overturned orthodoxy and established a new benchmark for modern painting and design“ (Tate), But rather, in „futile evangelism”, they were A-G only in the tautological sense that they were contemporary, most certainly not A-G in terms of being new. In fact they were the opposite.

Astonishing in hindsight. Here Britain was literally leading the world on the biggest change in man’s collective economic relationships since the dawn of the agricultural revolution about 10 millenia earlier, when man finally abandoned millions of years of hunting & gathering and settled down, cropping and pasturing. So the Ind Rev was in full swing, set, despite the casualties, to transform material prosperity for the masses –and to profoudly transform Man’s scientific undertsanding of his world – but this „radical“ sensitive young bunch of British artists (mostly) looked longingly backwards!

In fact, casting a wider net, not one British artist in the 19th C made a contribution to the Modernist cause. Not until c1910 we see any Modernist signs?

In stark contrast, across La Manche, the young guns in France embraced the New World, the ‚Modern‘, pursued open-eyed realism, and Social Realism, esp in country landscapes and life, and in the cities, thus JB Corot and Millet, then especially Gustav Courbet, the pioneering prologue to the portraits and urban genre paintings of Manet, thence Monet /Renoir /Pissarro etc and Impressionism, and the unfolding revolution beyond: the platform for the 20th C explosion.

And also striking: this obvious observation was unremarked by ALL reviews I read of this show.

Meantime England marched on backwards, into the Art and Craft movement of Wm Morris? All decorative, Mediaeval etc. Which then influenced Symbolism? Especially via spiritual dimension, dreams etc.



Formation. A group of young guns (oldest 23! Though Millais was painting for 10 yrs by then) reacted to, rebelled against the British art Establishment, ie esp the RA and the Joshua Reynolds platform, which praised the high Ren, as the pinnacle of Art.

So they formed in 1848, chose name PRB (and used this monogram on paintings), a 7 man group founded by WH Hunt, JE Millais, DG Rosseti, then joined by 4 more), a ‚Brotherhood‘, the PRB name partly in jest and apparently without great knowledge of the PR era (eg London’s Nat. Gallery was then sparse of PR art? Eg the Arnolfini Wedding, also L. Monaco’s altarpiece). They published a journal The Germ, recorded debates on PR Journal. FM Ford supported the group, shared its general ethos, but declined joining it.

Promoted by important John Ruskin! Famous for championing JMW Turner. Eg 1851 defended them, generally shared their religious mindset, and became close to Millais, till M „ran off“ with his wife!

Content /influences? It drew strongly on early 19th C Romanticism, both English and Continental, the spirit of artistic freedom, and its nostalgic regression! As WJ and BS remind us the Nazarenes in Germany were important and directly influential forbears, a bunch of „G neo-Medievalists“ homesick for the Middle Ages! Who like the PRB:

1/ aimed to “revive honesty and spirituality in Christian art”;

2/ formed (1809) a Brotherhood! (Lukasbund, ie B of St Luke), alluding to Mediaeval guilds! A “loose” group through 1820s, commissioned for two important fresco series in Rome;

3/ rebelled against Establishment, esp the ruling Neoclassicism and the academy system;

4/ were inspired by pre High Ren art.

The PRB were influenced by earlier British painters William Dyce (1806-64), who worked with the Nazarenes, and also by Theodor von Holst (1810-44), pupil of Fuseli (1741-1825) and “a direct influence on Millais and Rossetti”.

Thus the PRB:

1/ Rejected the „superficial virtuosity“ of the High Renaissance, and Mannerism,

2/ sought a return esp to Mediaeval and early Renaissance art, Quattrocento Italian art, the detail and colors. Thus their style favoured brighter light and colors, a keen detailed linear realism, flatter space. Eg obsessive detail of plants in JE M’s Ophelia.

3/ favoured realism, a close detailed observation of nature and life, but an idealistic / spiritual realism versus real (polemical, social) realism then famously abroad in France! Thus they were influenced by Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding in London‘s Nat. Gallery, eg FM Brown.

3/ drew on Mediaeval literature, Dante, Boccaccio.

4/ and drew strong nostalgic spiritual succour from Christian narratives, from the legendary Arthurian England story (cf Malory), and from North Europe mythology! Celts. Nordic myths.

Henry Wallis‘ The Stonebreaker (1857) is rare diversion to social realism? Apparently a „commentary on the (1834) Poor Law Amend’t Act .. which had formalised the workhouse system for paupers.. But how sincere? Nods to Thomas Carlyle “nobility of the poor”? Like FM Brown’s “Work”.

Relation to religion was complex? They revived pre-Reformation Christian simplicity? But they varied. Some were overtly religious, like WH Hunt. But Rossetti was agnostic, FM Brown a Christian Socialist? Thus his extraordinary Work (1852-65), a detailed decorative comment on the new economy, referencing Hogarth but without his edge!

Also lot of paintings of women! Eg espRossetti. Why? Victorian repressed sexuality!? But their „attitude to women was more Pygmalion than progressive..” (A.Smart).

PRB also took advantage of advances in chemistry, the availability of vibrant new pigments, artificial / synthetic colors.

Note that photography emerging mid/late 19th C, mirrored the realism of PRB. Eg the woman Julia Margaret Cameron. Thus it also challenged /inspired / encouraged the PRB? Eg esp WH Hunt.

PRB thinking resonated with energetic architect Augustus Pugin‘s (1812-52, died 40! Syphillis?) promotion of… Gothic revival! More rampant Med’lnostalgia! Eg Big Ben tower was based on his design.

Overall, how radical / Modernist? They certainly assailed the RA orthodoxy, and in some ways they responded to changing world around them, but their „revolution“ was essentially regressive, running away, circling back, far back. Lots of portraits, people from religious, historical, literary sources but no real images of their world, the surging industry, the transformed country and cities, and people’s lives with it.

Reception. First showings in 1849, esp JE M’s 1849 Isabella (or The Pot of Basil) (the 1st PRB painting? Citing Boccaccio’s crazy tale of blighted cross-class love, straight out of the mid 14th C), then 1850 controversy / uproar when Millais‘ Christ etc was shown, eg Dickens wild.

But became very popular, well known. Because they were prolific, and striking and their nostalgia struck a chord. Some were knighted. Millais and Hunt are both buried st Pauls. Hunt’s Shadow of Death (1873) sold for 10,000 guineas! And was printed.

And it still strikes a chord with the public! Still very popular, and for similar reasons? Nostalgic escapism? Thus JE M’s Ophelia is the Tate’s „best-selling postcard“!

But not so much with the critics?! Thus WJ: „sludge-thick sentimentality and desperate painterly escapism … this feeble show… convinced me all over again of the incurable ludicrousness of the pre-Raphaelites, ­purveyors of ye olde complete twaddle..”

Duration. Short-lived movement? The original PRB lasted only about 5 years, dissolved by 1853? And fragmented. Thus the group then loosely split between 1/ Realists (Hunt, Millais), stressing nature, though Hunt stayed spiritual. Millais moved away after 1860,“adopting a much broader and looser style influenced by Reynolds”, and was thus abused by Morris, Rossetti etc! Who saw betrayal!

And 2/ Mediaevalists (Rosseti, Burne-Jones etc). Rossetti went own way, now close to Wm Morris, worked with him, and Burne-Jones.

Thus term „PRB“ conventionally covers the core work from 1848-53, from the 7 members, plus some later works by the PRB and by other sympathetic artists.

Subsequently the PRB was related to, fed Aestheticism, another Escapist diversion, fleeing reality, which took root mid/late 19th C, esp based on lectures (1867/68) by philosopher Walter Pater, on the ideal of pursuing beauty in the arts, and favouring art for art’s sake, for its intrinsic beauty, and thus art NOT to be used for moral, sentimental or other messages. Thus they valued beauty over truth. Thus rejected Ruskin. Proponents, eg Rossetti, Burne-Jones (?), Whistler, and Aubrey Beardsley.

And the PRB spilled over into the Arts and Craft Movement, strong 1880-1910, esp Britain, but spread to Europe and N America. It was part of the Utopian reaction against Industrial Revolution. Thus they favored traditional decentralised manufacture, using Mediaeval / Romantic / folk motifs, versus modern factories and “machines“!?

A&C also drew on the writings of Ruskin (eg frowned on „servile labor“ in factories, versus small scale independent workers, designing own goods).

It was driven by Wm Morris (WM), joined by Burne-Jones at Oxford, part of the Birmingham Set, also inspired by Ruskin, and mad about Romantic literature (Tennyson, Keats, Shelley), and keen on social reform?? Much inspired by Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur.

It became political for Morris, who by the early 1880s was „spending more of his time on socialist propaganda than on designing and making”?! Paradoical, thus WM a “Socialist” but looking backwards to his false Middle Ages paradise not forward to Marx’s workers revolution. And (cf BS) we see WM A&C influence in trade union banners!

But had a big impact throughout Britain? Exhibitions, schools / education. Liberty & Co founded.

Exhibitions. Big Tate 2012/13 show tried a revamp, a new look, but perverted the truth to sell tickets, way off beam, described them as Avant-garde but quite misleadingly, implying Modernist progressives? They were AG in self-evident or tautological sense that they were contemporary. But most certainly not AG in terms of progressing art.

Tempting though because the PRB are an authentic British art movement, if in some sense an embarrassing one given events underway then across the Channel! Also the 2012/13 show was thin? BS: „of the 175 exhibits listed in the catalogue only 20 represent the five years of the Brotherhood’s existence”.

BS Brian Sewell, WJ Waldemar Januszczak.

2 thoughts on “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood… nostalgic if entertaining crackpots: looking through wrong end of the telescope?”

  1. What I find difficult with the Pre-Raphaelites is the text that accompanies each painting. Medievalism however was in the air because of Victor Hugo who rejected borrowed classicism. The Middle Ages had been European.


  2. Thanks for comment.
    Will check out V Hugo.
    I saw your take on Degas over weekend. V good. Having a close look at him right now, very interesting painter, far more so than Monet etc! Complex. Great painter but eccentric..
    Am v interested in reaction of artists to the world about them. Thus many run away, escape! Famously like Gauguin, who did it literally!
    But Degas despite his conservative background certainly embraced ‘modern life”. But in his own crazy way!


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