First of all, followers, I must apologise for my silence. Since my last post on this blog I have plunged into the PhD life, and have found it difficult to set aside enough time to write a decent post. Still, I thought I would make a brief contribution here on a little subject that’s caught my interest.
George Price Boyce (1826–97) is familiar to most people as a kind of peripheral figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which in some ways is true. He wasn’t a member of the PRB, but first made the acquaintance of Dante Gabriel Rossetti early, in around 1849. Their friendship was close and long-lasting; Boyce, more financially comfortable than other Pre-Raphaelites, purchased a substantial number of Rossetti’s drawings and watercolours over the years (over 40 pictures in all). Having trained initially as an architect, ‘[Boyce] did not depend on his art for a livelihood, but his work is of fully professional standard.’ (J. A. Gere, Pre-Raphaelite Drawings in the British Museum, 1994, p.78.) He earned his money from pawnbroking, having two shops in London by the 1850s. His sister, Joanna Mary Boyce (also known as Joanna Mary Wells) was also a talented artist. Examples of G. P. Boyce’s excellent watercolours depicting landscapes and vernacular architecture in crisp, minute detail can be seen below.
Having just today got hold of a copy of Boyce’s diaries (edited by Virginia Surtees, 1980), my attention was caught by mentions of the artist’s visits to Shropshire. I’m always interested in anything artistic related to that county; particularly south Shropshire and Ludlow, where I was born and raised. Boyce’s reasons for going to Shropshire are familial, as his aunt, Elizabeth Thomas, lived with her husband at Ashford Bowdler, a small village outside Ludlow. Although he may have visited her before the 1870s, he did not produce any Shropshire watercolours until that decade. The first mention is on 8 April 1872, when Boyce took 3 drawings of Ludlow scenes to the Old Water Colour Society Gallery to be exhibited: ‘Old Shropshire Farmhouse (bought by Armstead, £40); The Bull Inn Yard, Ludlow, 40 gns.; Street Corner at Ludlow, £35’ (Diaries, p.54). On 20 April his Bull Inn Yard, Ludlow watercolour sold ‘before I left the room’ (p.55).
In 1872–3 Boyce exhibited 9 more sketches at the Old Water Colour Society Gallery, among them views of the River Teme from Ludlow and a view ‘From a Window, Ludlow’ (Diaries, pp.55–6). The above picture of the Teme near Ludlow was shown at this time. A. E. Housman praised the river several times in A Shropshire Lad (1896):
In valleys of springs and rivers, By Ony and Teme and Clun, The country for easy livers, The quietest under the sun.
This watercolour of the same view of the Teme from a different spot on the bank was painted in October 1872. Boyce has added human interest in the small figures beside the water and, of course, the little dog watching them in the bottom right corner.
This watercolour is my favourite, as it shows a building in Ludlow that I often enjoy walking past and looking at. The Reader’s House in Church Walk is a picturesque building dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. There are many timber frame houses in Ludlow, but this stands out because of its proximity to St Laurence’s Church – dramatically present in Boyce’s picture – and because of the charming juxtaposition of grey stone and black-and-white timbers on its front exterior (below). Oddly, the two great red-brick chimneys are not visible in the watercolour – perhaps they were a later addition, or perhaps Boyce felt they would disrupt the composition and so left them out.
The front doorway of the Reader’s House bears some lovely antique carvings I particularly admire!
For my PhD I will be focusing on the Pre-Raphaelite artist, critic and art historian Frederic George Stephens (1827–1907). One of the seven founding members of the PRB, Stephens’s life and work has been consistently overlooked in surveys of Pre-Raphaelitism, with the result that most people either haven’t heard of him or know very little about him. This is despite the fact that he played a vital role in communicating the Pre-Raphaelites’ ideals to the reading public. Stephens has never been the subject of a full-length study, and the only articles about him were written by Dianne Sachko Macleod for TheBurlington Magazine in 1986: ‘F. G. Stephens, Pre-Raphaelite Critic and Art Historian’, and ‘Mid-Victorian Patronage of the Arts: F. G. Stephens’s The Private Collections of England‘. Although these articles shed some much-needed light on Stephens’s critical writing, they dismiss his ‘awkward attempts at painting’ and call his The Proposal (1850–1) ‘rigid and uninspired’. Stephens did struggle with the techniques of painting more than his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, but to gloss over his pictures entirely on the simple grounds of being ‘awkward’ seems to me reductive. Similar opinions were long held about Elizabeth Siddall’s ‘naive’ art, but recently her work has been justifiably reappraised. The time is ripe for Stephens’s paintings and drawings to receive the same treatment; art history has progressed beyond the simplistic notion that ‘bad’ art (deemed bad by previous historians) is unworthy of any kind of analysis.
Stephens trained at the Royal Academy schools alongside Millais and Hunt, worked as Hunt’s studio assistant on replicas of The Light of the World (now at Manchester City Art Gallery) and The Hireling Shepherd (The Makins Collection), and helped Dante Gabriel Rossetti with the unorthodox perspective of Ecce Ancilla Domini in 1849. His three surviving paintings are now in the Tate: the unfinished Morte d’Arthur (King Arthur and Sir Bedivere) (begun 1849), The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda) and Mother and Child (c. 1854). Three works on paper also survive: a delicate sketch of the artist’s mother (Tate); a large and distinctive pen and ink drawing of a Chaucer subject, Dethe and the Riotours, gifted to Rossetti in 1852 (Ashmolean); and a watercolour portrait of Stephens’s wife Clara from the 1860s (Dennis T. Lanigan collection). Two further paintings, portraits of Stephens’s father and mother which were his only exhibited works at the RA in 1852 and 1854, are said to also be in the Tate collection, but there is no record of them on the museum website and they may need unearthing. This makes for a modest oeuvre of 8 works – Stephens claimed to have destroyed everything else. Besides working behind the easel he also modelled for a number of important Pre-Raphaelite paintings, with his features appearing in Millais’s Isabella (1848–9) and Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849–50), and Ford Madox Brown’s controversial Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6).
For obvious reasons I will keep my initial research findings under wraps. For now, in this post I’d like to just consider why Stephens has been so overlooked over the years. There are several possible reasons for this. Compared with the other Pre-Raphaelites, Stephens’s life was relatively uneventful. Millais, Hunt, Rossetti: artists remembered as much for their ‘colourful’ romantic entanglements as for their art. Millais’s involvement with Effie Gray; Hunt’s love for Annie Miller and the later scandal of marrying his sister-in-law after his wife’s death; Rossetti’s courtship of Elizabeth Siddall and his passion for Jane Morris. There’s no denying that the turbulent lives and loves of these artists have captured audiences’ imaginations as equally as the artworks themselves, forming the basis for numerous films, books, biographies and TV series. But what about Stephens? He married Rebecca Clara Dalton in 1866 and they enjoyed a stable, monogamous relationship that lasted until Stephens’s death in 1907. In 1868 they had a son, Holman Fred. When Stephens became the art editor of The Athenaeum in 1861 (he had abandoned making art by this time), he settled down to writing weekly articles, freelancing and publishing books on architectural history and monographs of British artists – no scandalous affairs, no adventurous travels to the Middle East, no outbursts of bohemian behaviour. In many respects he was quite conventional – something of a taboo word in Pre-Raphaelite studies that contradicts how we feel the Pre-Raphaelites behaved.
Stephens appears to have shied away from the limelight more than the other Pre-Raphaelites. Although he wrote a prodigious amount, many of his articles for periodicals (The Athenaeum, The Crayon, The Portfolio) were published anonymously or under a pseudonym, making them difficult to find. This habit began with his important early essays for the short-lived PRB magazine The Germ in 1850: ‘The Purpose and Tendency of Early Italian Art’ appeared under the name John Seward in the second issue, while for ‘Modern Giants’ in the fourth issue he unusually adopted a female pen-name, Laura Savage. William Michael Rossetti, the other prolific critic in the Brotherhood, published a bevy of titles under his own name towards the end of the 19th century, including The P.R.B. Journal, a memoir and a selection of family letters, confirming himself as the PRB’s official chronicler and bibliographer. By contrast, very little of Stephens’s writing is autobiographical; there isn’t much of himself in his work, so to speak. Christina Rossetti picked up on this preference for anonymity in her sonnet, ‘The P.R.B.’, composed in 1853:
Calm Stephens in the twilight smokes his pipe,
But long the dawning of his public day.
Rossetti aptly describes Stephens’s already quite marginal position within the Brotherhood, smoking his pipe contemplatively and offering his critiques from the shadows. It’s an image which is as accurate now as it was then: ‘his public day’ is yet to dawn; his important contributions to Pre-Raphaelitism are still to be recognised.
There are other reasons for Stephens’s obscurity, such as his disagreements with Hunt over the idealism of The Triumph of the Innocents (1876–85) that led to the dissolving of their long friendship and a certain blackening of Stephens’s name on Hunt’s part. Consider also the fact that Stephens’s artworks are not frequently reproduced or exhibited, and then only in passing. Stephens’s conservative opinions – his aversion to French Impressionism, for example – also present him as out of touch with the modernity of British art at the dawn of the 20th century (which perhaps he was). But the wealth of writing by him that survives, and the small but intriguing oeuvre of artworks that escaped destruction, should not be ignored.
On the Pre-Raphaelite Reflections Facebook page I recently made a short post about the surprising connection between George Frederic Watts and Barack Obama. A line can be traced from Watts’s iconic 1886 painting Hope (above), through sermons delivered by two American pastors in the late 20th century, to Obama’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 with its central message of ‘the audacity of hope’, which was also the title of the US President’s second book published in 2006.
In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? […] It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!
Of course I’m not the first to notice this connection: Alastair Sooke reported it for TheTelegraph in 2008 in an article titled Barack Obama’s favourite painting, while I myself discovered the Watts-Obama link on a Wikipedia entry. It’s fascinating to consider that a Victorian Symbolist painting may have influenced the thinking of the most powerful political figure in the world. It feels almost like a victory; a compelling validation of Victorian art’s continuing (some might say surprising) relevance in the modern era.
On the other hand, it’s more likely that it wasn’t the painting itself that inspired Obama, but the message behind it. After all Hope is an allegory, intended to express or embody universal truths and conditions that anyone can recognise, regardless of their race, sex, faith or class. Obama may be proving Watts’s argument that an artwork can withstand the tests of time and can communicate its moral content to any era, thereby generating its own relevance. In the speech quoted above, the President similarly uses archetypal figures from the American consciousness, both historical and modern – the slave, the immigrant, the Vietnam soldier, the poor man – and interweaves them with promises of freedom, courage and of course hope. The line ‘Hope in the face of uncertainty’ could just as easily describe the situation of the blindfolded woman in Watts’s melancholy painting, perching uncomfortably on her globe and listening to the faint song from the last remaining string of her lute. It’s the perseverance of the human spirit in times of desolation; we are reminded that after Pandora opened the fatal box and released death, disease and general evil into the world, the one thing that remained was Hope.
Many Victorian artists used their work to address key social and political issues – even the Pre-Raphaelites, who many people still regard as categorically backward-looking and removed from the troubles of their time. But the relevance of Victorian art in the present day is equally interesting to discover and consider.
For example, the themes underlying Emily Mary Osborne’s Nameless and Friendless from 1857 resonate with viewers today, with Osborne highlighting ‘the predicament of the single woman in the modern metropolis’. The woman artist has arrived at a dealer’s to offer her painting to the scrutiny of a male-dominated art world – a situation that has changed little, as the Guerrilla Girls vocalised in their 1989 poster (below). Her position is contrasted with the affluent woman and child exiting the shop behind her, who came to purchase an artwork as a luxury instead of having to sell one out of financial necessity. The woman is stared at uncomfortably from behind by two men who have been examining a picture of a ballerina. The ballerina might represent a male fantasy of ideal femininity that the nameless woman, dressed in her heavy mourning clothes and harshly lit from above, cannot fulfil. Osborne’s painting, then, is one of vulnerability and inequality, with little sense of hope or change; we predict that the dealer examining the woman’s picture will turn her away, perhaps on the mere grounds that it has been painted by a woman.
The Pre-Raphaelites have been the subject of growing scholarly interest in the past decade or so. But it should be emphasised that the public appreciation of Pre-Raphaelite art has never dwindled. Millais’s Ophelia, Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott, Rossetti’s The Beloved, Hunt’s Light of the World and of course the designs of William Morris and Burne-Jones, still grip the imaginations of the British public. By contrast, institutions in the US still tend to favour Impressionism as the nineteenth-century art movement of choice, with only a handful of museums – Delaware, Harvard and the Legion of Honor at San Francisco, for example – actually owning any Pre-Raphaelite artworks. Roberta Smith wrote a particularly biting review in the New York Times about the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition when it toured to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, in 2013:
If you are genuinely interested in art and emerge from this show thinking that you have seen scores of outstanding paintings, you should spend more time studying other examples. For comparison the galleries adjacent to this exhibition contain two outstanding works by the Pre-Raphaelites’ French contemporaries, Eduard Manet’s ‘Dead Toreador’ (probably 1864) and Paul Cézanne’s portrait of his father reading a newspaper (1866). Consider the simplicity, directness and mysteries of these paintings against the moralizing and endless intricacies of the Pre-Raphaelites. It is a contrast between the complex and the merely complicated.
Clearly Impressionism is better suited to New York intellectualism than Pre-Raphaelitism. That the title of the Tate exhibition was changed from the bold Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde to the more muted Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900 for its US opening, speaks volumes about the perception of the Pre-Raphaelites as a fairly quaint and only mildly innovative group of artists and writers, with no radical intentions. To say nothing of how they rallied against establishment art principles, embraced the new science of photography, painted outdoors and chose to depict scenes of modern society – 10 years before the Impressionists in France.
Is the Victorian lineage of Barack Obama’s ‘audacity of hope’ speech just a happy coincidence?
Like my previous post about Pre-Raphaelite livestock, I must begin this with a personal note. In 2001, when I was 8 years old, my family moved from Shropshire down to Cornwall, where I spent the next 10 years. We lived for that time in and around a village called Feock, a few miles outside Truro and near the so-called Carrick Roads (not a road at all, but actually an estuary of the River Fal). Although I no longer live in Cornwall, I remain fond of the beautiful county where I spent my formative years. So I was fascinated to discover that William Holman Hunt visited it and produced a number of exquisite watercolours and sketches of the Cornish coastline. Here I should note that much of the information in this post has been gleaned from two sources: Judith Bronkhurst’s exhaustive and indispensable catalogue raisonne of Hunt’s paintings, drawings and watercolours; and Hunt’s two-volume memoir first published in 1905, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (previously discussed here; available online on the Internet Archive, Volume 1 and Volume 2).
Anyone who has visited Cornwall will have some idea of its geographical remoteness – a characteristic which is both the region’s blessing and its curse. Its miles of rugged cliffs and unspoilt beaches, as well as the exceptional quality of its light and the unusual, even Mediterranean ‘blueness’ of the ocean in the summer months, have appealed to many British artists for more than 200 years. Turner, John William Inchbold, John Brett and Henry Scott Tuke all travelled to the south west in the 19th century (Tuke’s family had moved to Falmouth in 1859). The late nineteenth century saw the flourishing of the so-called ‘Newlyn School’, a colony of realist painters based in the village of Newlyn near Penzance. Virginia Woolf summered in Cornwall as a child in the 1880s and ’90s, and her first truly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), opens with impressionistic descriptions of the Cornish seaside; not to mention To the Lighthouse (1927), informed by childhood memories of St Ives. In the 20th century, most famously, the county attracted and inspired a large circle of modernist painters, sculptors and writers – among them Barbara Hepworth, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Sven Berlin and Christopher Wood – who decamped from London to settle in St Ives. The Tate opened an outpost museum there in 1993, and also maintain the Barbara Hepworth Museum in St Ives, as a result of the town’s prominent role in the development of modern British art.
In September 1860 Holman Hunt and Valentine Cameron Prinsep travelled from London down to Penzance. They took the boat over to the Scilly Isles to join Alfred Lord Tennyson, Francis Turner Palgrave and Thomas Woolner, who were beginning a walking tour of Cornwall. I speak from personal experience when I say that this is no small journey to make, even today; the trip from London down to the south-westernmost tip of the country must have felt like quite the artistic pilgrimage in 1860. Presumably Hunt and Prinsep travelled by train – the Penzance station opened in 1852, allowing easier access to one of the most remote spots in Britain. ‘After a day spent in visiting the gardens of the Scilly Isles,’ Hunt writes, ‘we returned to Penzance. During the intercourse of this journey we were much engaged in discussions on the character of English poetry of all periods.’ (Woolner had left them by this point.) We are told that F. T. Palgrave was working at that time on compiling his famous Golden Treasury, which would be published the following year. Palgrave was understandably giddy with excitement at spending so much time in the company of the Poet Laureate; The Golden Treasury is actually dedicated to Tennyson, whose ‘encouragement, given while traversing the the wild scenery of Treryn Dinas [in Cornwall], led me to begin the work’.
Hunt supplies evocative descriptions of the group as they roamed the Cornish coast: ‘Tennyson in his slouch hat, his rusty black suit, and his clinging coat, wandering away among the rocks, assiduously attended by [Palgrave], and if by chance the poet escaped his eyes for a minute, the voice of Palgrave was heard above the sea and the wind calling “Tennyson, Tennyson”.’ Hunt recounts a conversation regarding Tennyson’s paranoia about his celebrity status – the poet feared that mobs of admirers lurked to accost him at every turn, and asked his companions not to say his name out loud in hotels and other public places – and tells of how the party journeyed to Helston, with Tennyson travelling in a dog-cart because of an injured foot. They also spent three days at Falmouth, where they chanced to meet Julia and Hester Sterling, the nieces of the Reverend F. D. Maurice, the Christian Socialist minister who was depicted in Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852-63). Most of the time, however, Hunt and Prinsep sat on the cliffs and sketched and painted. Asparagus Island, located in Kynance Cove on the Lizard Peninsula, was the subject of a gloriously detailed and luminous watercolour by Hunt (below).
Hunt has applied watercolour in a dense, meticulous fashion that disguises the liquidity and spontaneity traditionally associated with that medium. (Compare it with Inchbold’s atmospheric watercolour study of the cliffs at Tintagel in Cornwall executed at around the same time, below.) His depiction of the landscape – or seascape, perhaps – is intensely textural, in that he contrasts the hard ruggedness of the cliffs with the foaming, swirling waves that have gradually and relentlessly hewn the rocks into their present forms over thousands of years. In his memoir the artist expressed a preference for ‘the purple marble rock polished and made lustrous by the sea washing it in calm and storm.’ With this in mind, Asparagus Island appears a kind of semi-precious stone set into a water surround. It also reflects the Victorian interest in geology, previously explored by Hunt in Our English Coasts, 1852, another cliffside scene. The consistent level of detail throughout the watercolour does not prioritise one element over another, and the sea, in a constant state of flux, is depicted with the same minuteness as the island of bastite serpentine rock that squats unmoving at the centre of the composition. Colours are carefully balanced, so that the turquoise gradations of the ocean are softer notes echoing the stronger blues and greens of Asparagus Island. These are beautifully offset by a space of yellow sand to the right, visible at low tide. There are no visible human figures; instead, we as viewers are placed into the picture to become the observers observing the elements. Hunt has positioned us on a high promontory overlooking the cove, precariously, as if in midair. One can feel the strong Cornish sunlight warming the back of one’s neck; the wind blowing off the English Channel ruffles one’s hair.
It is a testament to Hunt’s powers of concentration that he painted the majority of his painstakingly detailed Asparagus Island in situ, perched on the clifftop – almost leading to the picture being lost forever. He gives an alarming account of how
For two or three days Val [Prinsep] and I remained working on the cliffs. My drawing was on a block, of which the sun had gradually drawn up one corner; this warped surface did not seriously interfere with my progress until one day a sudden gust of wind compelled me to put my hand on brushes in danger of going to perdition, when, turning round on my saddle seat, I saw my nearly completed picture circling about among the gulls in the abyss below. Luckily, a fresh gust of wind bore it aloft, until the paper was caught by a tuft of grass at the brink of the precipice. It proved to be within reach of my umbrella, which fixed it to the spot until with the help of my friend, I was able to rescue the flighty thing for completion. [Hunt, ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, vol. 2, p. 214-215.]
After its adventure of flying with seagulls and nearly plunging to a watery grave, the picture returned to the artist’s studio and was eventually purchased by Thomas Plint for 60 guineas, two years later, in 1862. This was an impressive sum for a watercolour.
Bronkhurst stresses the importance of the Cornwall tour for the artist: he produced ‘a prolific series [of works] on the trip in a creative burst of energy comparable to that characterising Hunt’s 1854-5 visit to the East.’ This series includes further landscape watercolours of the Lizard and also of Helston (one below, unfortunately in black-and-white).
Two further observational sketches are preserved in an album once in the collection of Charles Stanley Pollitt, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (acquired 2007; accession number WA2007.8). One is an accurate study of the sundial over the south porch of St Pol de Léon’s Church in the village of Paul, near Penzance; the other depicts the ancient Celtic cross in the churchyard at St Buryan, also near Penzance. The latter drawing also bears an interesting inscription, recording a discussion about the cross with the rural-accented sextoness of St Buryan: ‘Is there any history about it? or anything said about why it was put up? “Wull, it’s aboot as oold & ancient as the Church, it’s jist a foin thing for the stranger folk to see, but it wants a dale of pointing”.’
Although these Ashmolean drawings are undated they were almost certainly executed during the 1860 trip, as Hunt is not thought to have visited Cornwall again until the 1890s, and even that is uncertain. They also indicate the impressive number of sites that Hunt, Prinsep and their travelling companions were able to reach in a relatively short space of time; they ‘got around’. By the end of September they had left Cornwall to explore Devon – at which most Cornish folk will give a sharp intake of breath. They do their scones differently over the Tamar, you see, they spread the cream on first, before the jam, like barbarians.
The British director Ken Russell’s documentary-style biopic of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the wider Pre-Raphaelite circle, titled Dante’s Inferno, has been beautifully restored and released on DVD/Blu-Ray in the UK, thanks to the BFI. The film – one of several documentaries on the lives of artists and composers that Russell made for the BBC throughout the 1960s – was produced for the BBC’s Omnibus series, and first aired on BBC2 in December 1967. It remains one of Russell’s early masterpieces, appearing only two years before Women in Love (1969) and four years before the notorious The Devils (1971), and one can see in it the genesis of the director’s favourite traits and themes: artistic excess, madness, hallucinations, desire/eroticism and performances which are occasionally (but deliberately) camp, over-the-top or amateurish. (All these are especially evident in Gothic, Russell’s bonkers 1986 interpretation of the Byron-Shelley gathering at the Villa Diodati which gave birth to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) Moreover, Dante’s Inferno marks the Pre-Raphaelites’ first outing on the small screen; The Love School followed in 1975, Desperate Romantics in 2009. The screenplay, by Austin Frazer, undoubtedly drew much from William Gaunt’s influential biography The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy (1942), a title Russell originally hoped to use for the film.
The film’s opening shot establishes a mood of gothic melodrama: a coffin is drawn out of its grave and prised open to reveal a woman’s rotting corpse, before a hand reaches in, draws back the burial shroud and extracts a mouldered book (later we will learn that the corpse is Elizabeth Siddall, while the book, containing all Rossetti’s poems, was placed there by Rossetti after her death). Given Russell’s interest in fantasy it is surprising that he opts for the grisly truth of Siddall’s exhumation, dispelling the popular myth that her body was found to be untouched by decay even after several years in the ground. This suits the realism of the documentary genre, but also suggests that we are about to witness, or even to confront a story which has been literally unearthed from the past.
Immediately after this is a bonfire scene, intended to encapsulate the Brotherhood’s hatred of all things stale and Academic. ‘Down with the pretty ladies and Gainsboroughs!’ they cry, as they throw saccharine paintings by Reynolds and others onto the fire. The voiceover – another documentary technique – draws clear parallels with the spirit of Revolution happening in France when the PRB was founded in September 1849. Oliver Reed’s Rossetti (I should here note that Reed is more ruggedly handsome than Rossetti actually was) leaps through the flames and yells at the camera, before experiencing a vision of a medieval damozel in armour towering over the pyre – a shot which could be lifted straight out of a German silent film by Fritz Lang or F. W. Murnau, and which introduces Judith Paris as Elizabeth Siddall as a Joan of Arc figure. Of course it is highly unlikely that any such bonfire actually took place, but this is one of the many licences which Frazer’s script takes with the truth; history is stylised to explain the Brotherhood’s artistic motivations to the audience as succinctly as possible (the film is only 88 minutes long, so there’s a lot to fit into a short running-time).
I shan’t now proceed to analyse the film scene by scene. Instead it’s best to present some stills and let the images speak for themselves (and also to show the beauty of the BFI’s restoration).
Dante’s Inferno does manage to include characters who were bafflingly absent from Desperate Romantics – Christina Rossetti for one, and her brother William Michael (though he hardly says a word). It also uses original, untampered reproductions of the many artworks, rather than the frankly dodgy reconstructions used in certain other shows (for which see Kirsty Walker’s interesting blog post). Real Pre-Raphaelite locations are also used, notably Red House:
For me, one of the film’s real successes is its portrayal of William Morris. Despite the sheer number of historical characters jostling for attention on screen, Andrew Faulds’s performance stands out, capturing Morris’s dual qualities of boyish enthusiasm and romantic sensitivity: in one scene he cavorts around the garden of Red House pretending to be a chicken, while in another he softly recites his poem ‘Praise of My Lady’ to Jane Burden whilst punting down the river in Oxford. (This is another of the film’s interesting features, with many original Pre-Raphaelite poems by the two Rossettis, Morris and Swinburne read aloud either in voiceover or by the characters themselves.) It also helps that Faulds bears some resemblance to Morris.
In the film’s second half, which introduces the ‘second wave’ of Pre-Raphaelite artists and models, there is a noticeable shift in tone from light, jovial antics to the brooding melancholy which was foreshadowed in the macabre opening sequence of the coffin. Velvety shadows and low lighting predominate, and at times the film has a quality of 1920s German Expressionism (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), the aforementioned Fritz Lang, or even films from the Czech New Wave such as Juraj Herz’s The Cremator(1969), with its wide-angle lenses and moody, black-and-white cinematography. These visual elements mirror the narrative itself, as Rossetti descends into madness and despair and declines in health following the death of Elizabeth Siddall and the presence of a new ‘muse’ in the form of Jane Burden (Gala Mitchell).
Russell was originally keen to film Dante’s Inferno in colour, as Brian Hoyle in the DVD booklet explains:
Russell passionately lobbied the BBC to allow him to shoot the film on colour stock. He scouted locations in Scotland and the Lake District, which he said contained colours he ‘didn’t think existed outside the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites’. He also wrote that the film ‘cried out for colour more than any subject I have yet come across’, and even went so far as to suggest how he could colour-coordinate the palate of the film to match the personalities and work of the four protagonists. Scenes with Rossetti and Millais would be ‘lush and over-ripe’, those with Holman Hunt would be bright, light-headed and hallucinatory, and those with Morris would be ‘ominous, dark, deep and brooding’. The BBC, however, had only recently begun investing in colour and due to the increased cost they were reluctant to take a risk on a feature-length project directed by someone as unpredictable as Russell.
Of course, the film is not perfect. Though centred on Rossetti, Austin Frazer’s screenplay does perhaps cram too much into its short running-time, with the result that some incidents feel rushed or jumbled. Characters such as Emma Brown (wife of Ford Madox) are suddenly introduced, only to vanish from the film a few scenes later, while Ford Madox himself is never shown; nor is it immediately clear to those unfamiliar with the Pre-Raphaelite history who exactly is being depicted. As a result, many of the characters – except for Rossetti, Siddall and Morris – feel one-dimensional, popping up in short, random cameos. This can be particularly problematic for the women in the film: for example Jane Burden, my favourite of the Pre-Raphaelite models, spends much of her time reclining or standing in the same mannered postures as John Robert Parsons’s famous photographs of her, speaking little, frowning often and never breaking out of her role as a kind of artist’s lay figure. Gala Mitchell, who plays Jane, was herself a professional fashion model, so any moody posing is done very well, and she certainly looks the part; her dark, heavy features are an appropriate contrast to the bright-eyed Siddall.
Some viewers may find the performances stilted, hammy, wooden or other words of that ilk, though this is down to Russell’s preference for using untrained actors. The director’s trademark moments of zaniness – see the scene where Algernon Charles Swinburne (played anarchically by the British poet Christopher Logue) prepares to ravage an automaton in a decadent gin house – could also be perceived as unnecessary or over-indulgent. Still, this doesn’t seem all that strange given that the personal histories of the Pre-Raphaelite men and women are often baffling in themselves, with their numerous affairs, obsessions, foibles, decadent lifestyles (exotic menageries included) and occasional bouts of grave-digging; these seem tailor-made for a Ken Russell film, in which, very often, anything goes.
Anyone with an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites should definitely watch Dante’s Inferno. Despite its flaws, inaccuracies and anachronisms the film evokes its Victorian milieu with a kind of carnivalesque joy, while its handheld documentary style does create a sense of intimacy with its audience – something that other, more measured BBC productions tend to lack. In focusing on Rossetti, whose life was the most classically tragic of the ‘big three’ Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, Russell ultimately addresses the failure of artists to live up to their own ideals of life and love. Muses waste away, friendships and relationships sour, mental and physical health deteriorate, painting and poetry are frustrated. Art is a struggle.
I spent the first 8 years of my life on and around the family farm in south Shropshire, near the town of Ludlow where I was born—the same rural landscape described so evocatively in A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (‘From Clee to heaven the beacon burns, / The shires have seen it plain, / From north and south the sign returns, / And beacons burn again’). Although we moved away from the farm in 2001 to go and live down in Cornwall, my memories of those early years are still very vivid: the land changing with the seasons; racing across open fields with my dad on his quad bike; the shimmering summer heat in the hay fields; the bloody massacre of a fox in a chicken coop; the dim, distinctive hush of the big barn, smelling earthily of hay and animal feed. Our livestock chiefly consisted of cattle and sheep, and I still remember the times I could sit with a warm, newborn lamb in my lap to feed with the milk-bottle.
So perhaps I have been more conditioned than other viewers to notice the surprisingly frequent appearances of livestock—particularly sheep—in Pre-Raphaelite painting. The first that springs to mind is, of course, Hunt’s Our English Coasts, 1852, with its alternative title of Strayed Sheep (below). When I first showed this painting to my dad, an ex-sheep-farmer, he was (luckily!) impressed, though reproductions don’t do justice to the vibrant, singing colours of the original now hanging in Tate Britain. Hunt, as a kind of artist-shepherd, deploys his sheep for blatantly symbolic purposes. The idea of a straying flock representing the precarious state of the nation, when anxieties about England’s south coasts being vulnerable to Napoleon III’s invading fleets were heightened in the public consciousness, can still easily be grasped by modern viewers. Interestingly—though don’t quote me on this, and I may have to ask my dad!—this particular flock is comprised of a number of different breeds perched all together on the cliffside, which would reflect the diversity of the British population. I’m reminded of Bathsheba Everdene’s (very accurate) lamentation in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd:
Sheep are such unfortunate animals!—there’s always something happening to them! I never knew a flock pass a year without getting into some scrape or other.
The symbolism of the flock in Our EnglishCoasts, then,is decidedly secular, in that it refers to the socio-political climate of its day (hence the specific date of 1852 included in the title). But Hunt also recognised the religious and moral potential of a flock of wayward sheep. In the same period as English Coasts he painted The HirelingShepherd (below); another icon of High-Pre-Raphaelitism, with its minute, meticulous realism and dense arrangement of symbols—including a death’s-head hawkmoth, unripe apples and a lamb enfolded in a blood-red cloth. (No doubt the flowers in the foreground carry their own Victorian meanings too.) On the one hand, it is a somewhat questionable portrayal of the rural working class, which apparently can only descend into indolence and—most shocking!—wanton sexuality.
The title itself refers to the Book of John, Chapter 10, which tells the parable of the Good Shepherd:
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth. […] The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
With this in mind the painting’s ‘message’ becomes clearer, pointing to the fatal consequences of letting one’s (metaphorical) flock stray into (metaphorical) unknown pastures. According to Tim Barringer, Hunt intended the painting as ‘a commentary on a contemporary controversy concerning Anglican pastors neglecting their worshipping flocks, on which [John] Ruskin had published a tract.’ The result is chaos among the sheep: two rams are locking horns (not a pleasant sight, if anyone has ever seen rams fighting); some have slumped tiredly to the ground; others, probably out of starvation, have noticed the tempting golden cornfield behind the backs of their careless, lusty guardian and his sweetheart. Readers of Far from the Madding Crowd will also recall the dangers of sheep eating clover when left to their own devices, leading to bloat—but Hunt’s shepherd is no Gabriel Oak! One scholar has said it is fatal for lambs to eat unripe apples, though I’m not sure if this is true.
Hunt was not the only Pre-Raphaelite Brother to utilise the symbolism of the flock. Millais’s controversial masterpiece of 1849-50, Christ in the House of His Parents (below), features rows of sheep crowding expectantly behind a fence in the left-background, as if to watch the foreshadowing of the Crucifixion happening inside the house. Millais, always striving for truth to nature, famously used heads bought from a butcher to paint these rams and ewes. In this instance the sheep can be interpreted as a congregation of churchgoers; interestingly, Alistair Grieve has proposed that the layout of the carpenter’s shop explicitly echoes that of a church chancel or presbytery, with the viewer looking westwards from the east end.
A study for the painting demonstrates that the sheep were included early on, and Millais retained them even after removing other compositional elements around the edges (the window and flower box on the left, the standing figure on the right).
Ovis aries are also the subject of Ford Madox Brown’s ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ (below), which was commenced in April 1851 using Brown’s garden at Stockwell and also Clapham Common as a backdrop (the distant seaside was added later, creating an imagined, composite landscape). Despite the eighteenth-century costumes of the figures, the painting does not illustrate any specific literary or historical subject and it is safe to assume that the sheep, in this instance, are there simply because they are.
The idyllic, languid innocence of the scene is best expressed in the lamb lounging flat on the grass on the far right—there are no encroaching dangers, no worm-in-the-bud undertones as in The Hireling Shepherd. As various scholars have noted, Brown was much more interested in trying to capture, as accurately as possible, the effects of bright, full, overhead sunlight on the English landscape and the human figure; scarcely any portion of the picture is in shadow, and in the hot light the mother and her baby become statuesque forms against an unusually low horizon. The colours of white fleece against green grass are particularly lovely. Brown’s plein air method of painting had a considerable influence on Hunt and Millais when they began to paint The Hireling Shepherd and Ophelia respectively, while the unusual perspective of ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ may have contributed to the jarring, lopsided composition of Hunt’s English Coasts.
From these paintings it is possible to see the humble sheep as a kind of quintessentially English animal, embedded in the rural landscape and variously neglected and petted by humans. Pre-Raphaelite painters could cast their flocks in a surprising number of symbolic or metaphorical roles, ranging from Victorian anxieties of a French invasion to more moral and Biblical messages.
Tom Hunter is a contemporary British photographer whose work has reached international acclaim. He creates striking tableaux, often inspired by the urban landscape of east London (particularly Hackney) and drawing on the postures and compositions of Western genre and history painting, re-imagining them for a modern audience. See, for example, his Death of Coltelli (below) which uses the slumped pose of the female nude at the centre of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus for an image of abandonment and isolation.
Of interest for this blog is a series of 10 photographs entitled Life and Death in Hackney which Hunter began in 1998. In them he re-stages Victorian paintings by Millais, Waterhouse, Alfred Wallis and Arthur Hughes, among others, in a contemporary London setting. The result is a peculiarly heightened sense of reality — a reality of industrial decay and patches of nature quietly existing on the fringes of urban environments. A poignance and beauty is found in these otherwise maligned locales.
Hunter saw modern parallels for Millais’s Ophelia in a news story about a young woman who, on her way home after a night out, slipped into a canal and was tragically drowned. Like Ophelia, The WayHomeis dominated by swathes of brilliant green foliage flecked with flowers. If Millais’s painting explores (among other themes) human life competing for existence in amongst nature, then Hunter’s suggests the fight for survival in a landscape in which the natural and the urban have become jarringly intertwined. Youth and freedom waver on the brink of tragedy and danger, leaving only lost hopes and dreams.
The above comparison is particularly striking, with Hunter quoting directly from Arthur Hughes’s 1862 Home from Sea. The empty arched window in the background of Hughes’s rambling country churchyard is echoed in the multiple broken windows of the abandoned warehouse in Hunter’s image; while the small bush of dog roses to the right of the young sailor’s head has expanded into a tangled mass of briars which threatens to engulf the couple. Hughes, it should be noted, originally exhibited his painting under the title A Mother’s Grave; but Hunter leaves the narrative of his photograph open-ended, for each viewer to decide. He also expresses a tension between past and present: the couple seems to be mourning for a lost loved-one, but the cemetery itself (which is probably Victorian) has been left to sink into disrepair, neglected by modern society.
Just as the Pre-Raphaelites did in paint, Hunter photographs in a sharp, even focus to capture every fine detail of his sitters’ surroundings. Rich, luminous colours are combined with subtle effects of natural light. The relationship between painting and the new art/science of photography was one the original Pre-Raphaelites were conscious of, at the time — though of course paintings still had the advantage of colour over sepia and black-and-white photographs.
Hunter’s work demonstrates that, far from being distant and Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite art engaged with social themes still very much relevant today: love, loss, death, social alienation. He explains on his website that Life and Death in Hackney is rooted in urban areas which were
the epicentre of the new warehouse rave scene of the early 90s. During this time the old print factories, warehouses and workshops became the playground of a disenchanted generation, taking the DIY culture from the free festival scene and adapting it to the urban wastelands. This Venice of the East End, with its canals, rivers and waterways, made a labyrinth of pleasure gardens and pavilions in which thousands of explorers travelled through a heady mixture of music and drug induced trances.
Is there some suggestion, then, that this urge for young people in the 1990s to formulate their own vibrant subcultures, consciously breaking away from mainstream norms, had its roots in the spirit of youthful artistic rebellion which led to the founding of the P.R.B.? Such a supposition is actually quite ingenious given the persistent general view that Pre-Raphaelite art is stale and sentimental. In casting the compositions of Millais, Hughes and others in a new light, Hunter invites us to reconsider our relationship with them, as viewers in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, and to remember how radical and controversial the art of the P.R.B. was in its day.