‘Tractarian Tendencies’: The Pre-Raphaelites and Anglo-Catholicism

Another aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism which has recently fascinated me is its links with the Tractarians, the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism. Whilst I am by no means an expert in theology, and am rather murky in my religious beliefs, I am still deeply fascinated by the mystique of churches, cathedrals and ritualism. I have often got the impression that there is a certain dreamy mysticism surrounding Anglo-Catholic practice which rather appeals, even if I do not necessarily believe staunchly in its doctrines. Note that my explanation of the Pre-Raphaelite associations with Anglo-Catholicism barely scratches the surface of what is potentially a whole dissertation’s worth of research and speculation!

I shall attempt to explain the origins of Anglo-Catholicism as succinctly as possible (and feel I should apologise to any practising Anglo-Catholics readers if there are errors in my explanations!). Anglo-Catholicism itself is still technically part of the Church of England, despite its close links with the ‘Romish’ branch of Christianity, and its followers were criticised for sympathising with Roman Catholicism, rather than for actually being Catholic. In Oxford in the 1830s a group of Anglican academics and clergymen became increasingly unhappy with the Church of England’s lack of appreciation for its pre-Reformation, medieval, Catholic heritage. One of their primary aims was to reintroduce elements of Catholic church ritual into Anglican services, reviving the use of incense, bells, Latin hymns, elaborate vestments and gilded altar furniture in ‘bells and smells’ fashion. They also gave a supremacy, as in Catholicism, to the receiving of the Sacrament as a necessity in church services. Notable figureheads of this ‘Oxford Movement’ included John Henry Newman (painted in a portrait by Millais, below), Edward Bouverie Pusey and John Keble, after whom Keble College, the Oxford University college established in the Gothic Revival style in 1870, is named. From 1833 to 1841 they published a series of Tracts for the Times expounding their revivalist ideals, hence their being labelled ‘Tractarians’. It is worth noting that Tractarians were perceived as deeply nostalgic for the Middle Ages, a time when Catholicism was the ruling denomination and an age which produced religious buildings and objects of great beauty. Of course, all this medievalism sounds very familiar when one remembers the Pre-Raphaelites, and the notion of a ‘brotherhood’ of men dissatisfied with the establishment and banding together to reform it has echoes in the founding principles of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Perhaps the Oxford Movement’s emphasis on the beautiful, sensual elements of worship, with a focus on sounds, scents and ornamentation, could even be regarded as anticipating the Aesthetic Movement. It is also worth remembering, too, that some of the Movement’s leaders, particularly Newman and Keble, were poets as well as priests: the Bible was viewed poetically (think of the poetry of the King James Version), and faith could be expressed divinely through verse.

John Everett Millais, 'Portrait of John Henry Newman', 1881
John Everett Millais, ‘Portrait of John Henry Newman’, 1881. Newman actually converted to Catholicism in 1847, hence the red cardinal’s robes.

The early work produced by the Brotherhood caused some concern amongst contemporary observers for displaying Catholic and/or Tractarian tendencies and sympathies. A number of important early works are religiously themed: Christ in the House of His Parents by Millais (1849-50), the elaborately-titled A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (1850) by Holman Hunt, and The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849-50) by Dante Rossetti, are all notable examples. Much has been written of the hostile reception Millais’s painting received when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy; even Charles Dickens, famous as a realist, scathingly criticised the picture’s ‘loathsome minuteness’ being too close to truth! It was the undisputed norm for the Holy Family to be portrayed idealistically, yet Millais paints them in minute detail, ‘warts and all’, and, scandalously at the time, gives the young Christ red hair. Perhaps these critics also took against the painting’s rich religious (and thus, for them, specifically Catholic or High Church) symbolism. Indeed, Alastair Grieve theorises that the composition of Millais’s painting mirrors or suggests the layout of a church and specifically references High Church practices: the workshop bench is the altar at the east end of the church, and the back wall is a kind of rood screen (favoured by Tractarians) separating the priests and the altar from the congregation, the literal ‘flock’ of sheep. Anglo-Catholicism’s deep concern with the importance of the Sacrament is possibly represented by the ‘blood of Christ’ on his little open palm at the exact centre of the canvas (also foreshadowing the Crucifixion). Certainly an interesting theory!

John Everett Millais, 'Christ in the House of His Parents', 1849-50
John Everett Millais, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, 1849-50
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin', 1848-49
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’, 1848-49

The Brotherhood’s lifestyle and behaviour was also problematic for some contemporaries. Their decision to label themselves a ‘Brotherhood’, which initially signals monks rather than painters, and the presence of an Italian surname among its members — Rossetti — aroused suspicion. It probably didn’t help that Rossetti dubbed himself an ‘Art-Catholic’ in his pre-Pre-Raphaelite days and wrote a series of religious-themed poems such as ‘Ave’, ‘My Sister’s Sleep’ and the Latin-titled hymn ‘Mater Pulchrae Delectionis’, which he planned to publish in a volume entitled Songs of the Art Catholic in 1847. In my opinion, however, the young Rossetti’s attraction to Catholicism and High Anglicanism was purely aesthetic and did not arise from any sincere faith — in later years he never subscribed to any religious dogma and even attempted to go back and erase his Art-Catholicism from his poetry, presumably out of embarrassment. Still, it is undeniable that his first major oil painting, his first significant Pre-Raphaelite work, is distinctly Catholic (or perhaps faux-Catholic) in feel, with its unusual focus on Mary before the Annunciation (above). As with many of Rossetti’s paintings it is paired with one of his poems: two sonnets titled ‘Mary’s Girlhood (For a Picture)‘ inscribed on the frame itself which explain the picture’s web of symbols to the viewer — the lilies, the books, the cross-shaped trellis, the red cloth Mary embroiders, among others. Rossetti’s sister Christina, who was herself closely involved with her local Anglo-Catholic church in London and wrote a great deal of devotional poetry and prose, modelled for Mary in both The Girlhood and its sequel Ecce Ancilla Domini! (below), Dante recolouring her hair from brown to auburn. Because of all this, Dante Rossetti was suspected of ‘Mariolatry’, an excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Ecce Ancilla Domini!' (The Annunciation), 1849-50
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini!’ (The Annunciation), 1849-50

Critics of the Brotherhood’s ‘monkish follies’ were also concerned that it hinted at unmanliness. Certainly, Tractarianism/Anglo-Catholicism’s concentration on aesthetic beauty and the more theatrical elements of liturgy would have indicated a kind of effeminacy in its practitioners which contrasted with so-called ‘Muscular Christianity’, a movement which promoted good health and a strong body to reflect good morals and a strong faith. The use of bells, incense, flowers and golden garments, as well as the PRB styling themselves on the intensely cloistered, all-male world of Catholic monasteries, would likely have been viewed with suspicion by the Victorian public, and at some point the sexuality of male Tractarian sympathisers was called into question. Perhaps it is not surprising that a number of important figures in the Aesthetic Movement, most notably Oscar Wilde and John Gray (the inspiration for Dorian Gray) actually converted to Catholicism in later life. Simeon Solomon (to whom I intend to devote a separate post), a Pre-Raphaelite associate persecuted for his homosexuality, portrayed church ritualism in paintings such as Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost, which includes a thurible, lilies, candles and rich vestments. It also, I believe, allows the viewer to admire the handsome and delicate beauty of the two acolytes; the longer-haired man on the left is probably English, while his companion has a more Italian look.

Anglo-Catholicism is still practiced today in many churches throughout England and has even spread internationally, though I often wonder — perhaps unfairly — whether or not its ornate, semi-Catholic aura is still met with the same distrust and confusion as it was in the nineteenth century. I feel it would be a shame, if so.

Simeon Solomon, 'Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost', 1863
Simeon Solomon, ‘Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost’, 1863

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Further information

  • Convent Thoughts, painted by Charles Allston Collins (not an original member of the Brotherhood, but very closely associated) in 1851, is another example of early Pre-Raphaelite religiosity. Its convent setting, Christian symbolism and ornate gold frame decorated with carved lilies and inscribed with the Latin ‘Sicut Lilium’ (‘As the lily among thorns’), led to accusations of Roman Catholic sympathies. It is also breathtakingly detailed, much in the manner of Millais’s meticulous realism, and well worth seeing in situ at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
  • Rossetti Archive entry for another Mary-themed painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mary in the House of St. John, which was originally planned to form a triptych with Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini!
  • Rossetti’s unsuccessful publishing project Songs of the Art Catholic in the Rossetti Archive. Links to texts of the poems can also be found here.
  • Video commentary on Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents by the wonderful Smarthistory.
  • Video about Keble College, Oxford, which was a monument to the Gothic Revival and a product of the Oxford Movement.
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‘How They Met Themselves’: Pre-Raphaelitism and the Double

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'How They Met Themselves', watercolour version, c. 1860-64
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘How They Met Themselves’, watercolour version, c. 1860-64

A couple in medieval dress walk through a gloomy wood at twilight. Suddenly they encounter their doubles, exactly alike in dress and face, outlined in the gloaming by some unearthly light. The man draws his sword in astonishment; his lover collapses in a deathly swoon, her arms outstretched mournfully towards her onlooking twin. Traditionally, seeing one’s double is an omen of death: perhaps the swooning lady shall die soon after. This wholly Gothic, supernatural subject by D. G. Rossetti merges Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics with another subject I find deeply, personally fascinating: the doppelgänger, mirrors, reflections, duality, and such like. I have been interested in the idea of the double for a long time now, and what was my delight to discover a Pre-Raphaelite work depicting just that!

Several versions of How They Met Themselves exist. The earliest version, a wonderfully atmospheric pen and ink drawing (below), was executed in 1851 when Rossetti was 23, clearly suggesting that he was interested in the idea of doppelgängers from early on in his artistic career. The 1860 watercolour version (above) was actually painted on Rossetti’s honeymoon with Elizabeth Siddal — a strange, even macabre thing indeed to paint on one’s honeymoon, particularly since Lucinda Hawksley notes that the couple in the picture are clear portraits of Rossetti and Siddal themselves, which surely doesn’t bode well! Rossetti called it his ‘Bogie Drawing’ — a bogie being an evil spirit — and was clearly fixated by the haunting, doom-laden quality of the image. A third was painted in watercolours in 1864.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'How They Met Themselves', pen and ink and brush version, 1851-60
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘How They Met Themselves’, pen and ink and brush version, 1851-60

The subject of the double has a long history, particularly in literature. In Greek mythology Narcissus falls in love with his reflection, and in Gothic tales such as Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson (1839), James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Poor Clare (1856) and even Hans Christian Andersen’s lesser-read fairy-tale The Shadow, characters are haunted and followed by their often malevolent likenesses. The doppelgänger theme — doppelgänger literally means ‘double walker’ in German — is also found in films such as the recent Black Swan, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and, less sinisterly and with a more ethereal and metaphysical tone, in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s breathtakingly beautiful The Double Life of Véronique (1991). So Rossetti was hardly the first or last to show an interest in doubles, but he was certainly one of the few in the history of art to actually depict doppelgängers. I wonder if his obsession with the subject would have seemed eccentric even for the Victorian period: the double is a truly folkloric, superstitious and arcane motif, not the stuff of serious, conventional religion or morality. Besides this, his decision to dress up his figures in slightly odd medieval clothing (the man seems to like sporting wind and brass instruments round his neck in the various versions, while the woman’s headdress looks a bit like a Star Wars helmet) makes How They Met Themselves all the weirder.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'How They Met Themselves', 1864 watercolour version
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘How They Met Themselves’, 1864 watercolour version

Apparently, in later life, Rossetti filled his Chelsea home and studio with mirrors, giving visitors the eerie feeling of encountering their own reflections in many misty glasses. Mirrors crop up in a surprising number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings: William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) and Il Dolce Far Niente (1866), most pictures portraying Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott at her loom, and Ford Madox Brown’s unfinished Take Your Son, Sir!’ (1851-92), all feature looking-glasses. Meanwhile, a host of Rossettis, such as Lady Lilith (begun 1868, detail below), Lucrezia Borgia (1860-61), the drawing Love’s Mirror (1850-52), La Bella Mano (1875) and Woman Combing Her Hair (1864), have mirrors and reflections lurking in their backgrounds. The mirror in Lady Lilith is particularly intriguing: we are looking at Lilith indoors in her boudoir, and yet the mirror on the wall reflects an outdoor space, specifically the leafy upper branches of trees. Perhaps the implication is that it is a magic ‘scrying’ mirror for seeing into another world?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Lady Lilith', detail
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Lady Lilith’, detail

How They Met Themselves represents the more nightmarish, Gothic aspect of Rossetti’s work. It could be a scene from some obscure medieval ghost story, or an unconscious portent of death — Elizabeth Siddal, who is supposedly portrayed in the painting, died from a laudanum overdose only two years after the 1860 watercolour, and she would have seen and met her own image countless times in the many portraits Rossetti obsessively drew and painted of her. In a poem first composed in 1869, entitled The Portrait, he writes elegiacally and refers to a strange reflection:

This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.

The Pre-Raphaelites at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE

Alas, I have neglected this blog of mine for several months! University, and probably life in general, has got quite in the way (I’ve a dissertation to write!). But, no fear, I have returned.

I was recently in the United States on a family visit, and since Bethesda, MD, is only a two-hour drive from Delaware I slyly encouraged a trip to Wilmington with the intention of going to the Delaware Art Museum. The museum occupies a special place in Pre-Raphaelite studies since it holds the largest and most important collection of the Brotherhood’s work outside the UK, which is certainly unusual for such a deeply British movement. Samuel Bancroft, a Wilmington textile mill owner, first rapturously beheld a Pre-Raphaelite painting — Rossetti’s Vision of Fiametta (1878) — in 1880, and in the 1890s began to enthusiastically acquire PRB art to display in his home, now sadly demolished. His fine collection was bequeathed to the museum in 1935, and although his tastes would surely have seemed bizarre to his fellow Americans at the time his passion for the work of D.G. Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, John Millais and Ford Madox Brown resulted in one of the few American collections of nineteenth-century British art (I believe that the Fogg Museum at Harvard University is one another).

Despite an apocalyptically-titled ‘polar vortex’ we were able to make the journey up to Wilmington, and I spent the afternoon at the museum. I was especially privileged to meet with Margaretta S. Frederick, chief curator of the Bancroft Collection, who very kindly took the time to show my father, my sister and me round the main gallery and then to see a substantial number of paintings in storage. She was very friendly and welcoming, and it is always lovely to speak to a fellow Pre-Raphaelite obsessive (if that’s the right word to use!). I am now tempted to return to the museum and make use of its fabulous library (which includes original volumes of The Yellow Book and Rossetti first editions) for future research!

The galleries themselves are beautifully assembled. Some of the walls are papered with William Morris’s Marigold pattern, while others are painted in greens and blues to complement those rich Pre-Raphaelite colours. As you can see from the photographs below the rooms were empty on that cold Wednesday afternoon, so I was able to examine and wander among the paintings and objects in reverential solitude. I had seen some of the pictures in previous exhibitions — Veronica Veronese at the V&A’s Cult of Beauty; Lady Lilith at the Tate Pre-Raphelites — but due to crowded conditions it was difficult to really get close and appreciate them in one’s own time, so this quietude was rather welcomed by me (though it would have been nice to see a few others out Pre-Raph hunting!).

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On the wall: ‘Veronica Veronese’ and ‘La Bella Mano’ (bigger than I expected) by Rossetti; ‘The Somnambulist’ by Millais. Photography is allowed, fyi.
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‘The Council Chamber’ from the ‘Briar Rose’ series — certainly the largest Burne-Jones I have yet seen!
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On the wall: ‘Lady Lilith’ by Rossetti; Charles Fairfax Murray’s lovely copy of Rossetti’s ‘Beata Beatrix’

I thought it would be nice to focus on a few favourite works in the collection. The painting which greets you in the first room (and it was the first Pre-Raphaelite work Bancroft bought) is one I was particularly looking forward to seeing, though its small size makes it seem unassuming and even a little insignificant when compared alongside other, much larger works by Rossetti. Titled Water Willow, it’s a kind of love letter to Jane Morris and was painted at Kelmscott Manor in the summer of 1871. Anyone who read my previous post about William Morris’s bed might have some idea of my deep love for Kelmscott, and Water Willow actually features the house and the village church in the background and what is presumably the River Thames with a boathouse in the middle ground. (A copy of the painting executed by Charles Fairfax Murray in 1893 currently hangs in Jane Morris’s bedroom at Kelmscott Manor, which left me eager to see the original!) Rossetti’s infamous affair with Jane reached its peak at this time, and while William was away in Iceland the two used Kelmscott and its surrounding landscape as a private, rural retreat in which to indulge their passions. The painting can also be regarded alongside several sonnets which Rossetti composed in the same summer, now informally called the ‘Kelmscott Love Sonnets’. One such poem, ‘Silent Noon’, is rich with natural imagery and a quiet atmosphere which matches the Water Willow painting (see links at the end). I particularly love the picture’s cool, aqueous colour palette of watery greens and pale blues, echoing Jane’s eyes and imbuing the painting with a curiously introspective, meditative mood. The willow boughs of course also bring to mind one of William Morris’s best-loved designs, though his pattern was first printed a good few years later in 1887.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Water Willow', 1871
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Water Willow’, 1871
Close-up of 'Water Willow'
Close-up of ‘Water Willow’

Another lovely painting in the collection is John Millais’s The Highland Lassie from 1854. Also small in size, this painting actually reminded me somewhat of those little oval gold-framed daguerrotype portraits popular in the Victorian period; certainly, Millais’s obsessive attention to detail has been described as photographic and this painting’s plain background is perhaps reminiscent of a backdrop in a photographer’s studio. It is one of several paintings executed by Millais in the Scottish Highlands, the most famous of which is his portrait of John Ruskin (recently bought by the Ashmolean), and the sitter’s name is now sadly unknown. She gazes out at the viewer, her blue eyes and the soft pink of her lips and faint blushing cheek complemented by her dark blue collar and the pink and white pinstripes of her dress (though Millais originally requested a dress of Rob Roy tartan).

John Everett Millais, 'The Highland Lassie', 1854
John Everett Millais, ‘The Highland Lassie’, 1854
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Close-up of ‘The Highland Lassie’

Finally (though I could write far more!), another Rossetti in the collection is Veronica Veronese, a sumptuous study in greens painted in 1872. A characteristic of Rossetti’s work which I’ve always noticed is his tendency to give his paintings alliterative, pretty-sounding titles which sound vaguely Latin or Italian: Veronica Veronese apparently simply means ‘Veronica of Verona’, and might also allude to the Venetian painter Paolo Veronese. Here a woman swathed in rich green velvet — modelled by Alexa Wilding — sits absorbed in contemplation before a violin, whose strings she fingers absentmindedly, while just behind her a canary sings (symbolically?) outside its cage. This is not a painting with any moral or narrative, as in earlier Pre-Raphaelite work: now, in the quintessentially Aesthetic mode, Rossetti places an emphasis on mood and the senses. Perhaps underlying the painting is the idea of synesthesia, or the stimulation of more than one sense at the same time, and the canary’s song, the daffodils on the table, the suggestion of the woman’s music and the gorgeous colour palette all combine to intensify the viewer’s sensory experience. It is best to supply Rossetti’s own evocative explanation of the picture in order to understand these Aesthetic principles:

Suddenly leaning forward, the Lady Veronica rapidly wrote the first notes on the virgin page. Then she took the bow of the violin to make her dream reality; but before commencing to play the instrument hanging from her hand, she remained quiet a few moments, listening to the inspiring bird, while her left hand strayed over the strings searching for the supreme melody, still elusive. It was the marriage of the voices of nature and the soul — the dawn of a mystic creation.

Echoing Walter Pater’s famous claim in his essay ‘The School of Giorgione’ that ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’, the painting could thus also be viewed as a representation of the creative process.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Veronica Veronese', 1872
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Veronica Veronese’, 1872
Close-up of 'Veronica'
Close-up of ‘Veronica’

As a souvenir of my visit I decided to buy a particularly beautiful book about the Bancroft Collection with some gifted dollars. Its full title is Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum, and almost all of the works on display and in storage are photographed with accompanying commentaries. The only downside is that it made the luggage a good deal heavier on the flight home! I could not recommend the museum highly enough to other Pre-Raphaelite fans, and thanks must be given again to Margaretta Frederick for showing me its unique collection.

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Further information

  • The Bancroft Collection has its own excellent website which lists all the paintings by each artist, with high-quality photographs.
  • The Delaware Art Museum’s main website, with information of its other collections. Any pirate fans would appreciate its galleries of Howard Pyle!
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Kelmscott Love Sonnet’, ‘Silent Noon‘, composed like Water Willow in the summer of 1871 at Kelmscott Manor. The text here is from The House of Life, Rossetti’s large sonnet sequence published in complete form in 1881.
  • Veronica Veronese in the Rossetti Archive, with a more in-depth discussion of its production and iconography.