‘But long the dawning of his public day’: the case of Frederic George Stephens

F.G. Stephens 1847 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910
William Holman Hunt, F. G. Stephens, 1847. Oil on panel, 20.3 x 17.5 cm. Tate.

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 The Burlington 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.

Mother and Child c.1854 by Frederic George Stephens 1828-1907
Frederic George Stephens, Mother and Child, c. 1854. Oil on canvas (unfinished), 47 x 64.1 cm. Tate; bequeathed by Holman Fred Stephens, 1932.
The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda) c.1850 by Frederic George Stephens 1828-1907
F. G. Stephens, The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda), 1850–1. Oil on canvas, 80.6 x 64.8 cm. Tate; bequeathed by Holman Fred Stephens, 1932. This is one of at least three subjects from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that Stephens depicted.

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).

Millais_ferdy
John Everett Millais, Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, 1849-50. Oil on canvas, 65 x 51 cm. Stephens gave an illuminating account of sitting for this painting in J. G. Millais’s The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (1899).
B1980.25.2
John Everett Millais, Study for the Head of Ferdinand in ‘Ferdinand Lured by Ariel’, 1849. Graphite on paper, 17.5 x 13 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

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.

Study of F.G. Stephens for 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet'. Verso: A Head Crowned with Laurels 1852 by Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893
Ford Madox Brown, Study of F. G. Stephens for ‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet’, 1852. Graphite on paper, 29.2 x 34.3 cm. Tate.

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 AthenaeumThe CrayonThe 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.

The Artist's Mother c.1850 by Frederic George Stephens 1828-1907
Frederic George Stephens, The Artist’s Mother, c. 1850. Graphite on paper, 19.4 x 17.5 cm. Tate. Possibly a study for Stephens’s painted portrait of his mother, exhibited at the RA in 1854.

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.

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