Understanding Stephens

F. G. Stephens, photographed by Cundall, Downes & Co., probably in April 1859. Reproduced in Jeremy Maas, The Victorian Art World in Photographs (1984), p. 119.

For over a year now, I’ve been researching the life and work of Frederic George Stephens, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for my PhD at Oxford Brookes University. This has taken me to surprisingly far-flung places: in June, notably, I spent a week in Vancouver, going methodically through the 100-plus letters Stephens wrote to William Michael Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, in the University of British Columbia Library. (The story of how these documents ended up at Vancouver is fascinating in itself: William E. Fredeman, the pioneer Pre-Raphaelite scholar who belonged to the English faculty at UBC, charmed the descendants of W. M. Rossetti – his daughter Helen Rossetti Angeli, and his granddaughter Imogene Dennis – into bequeathing their vast troves of family papers to the university in the 1960s and 1970s. These form what is now titled the Angeli-Dennis Collection, a still-untapped resource for scholars.)

William Henry Fisk, Frederic George Stephens, ca.1882.

Given the fact my thesis is still in progress and unpublished, and because of certain copyright limitations, I must keep much of what I’ve discovered (and there’s a lot of it) under wraps for the time being. However, I thought I would highlight some overlooked curiosities in the public domain which further our understanding of Stephens’s personal connections with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. In a way, these connections go without saying, given his status as an official PRB from the outset in 1848, a fact of which he remained staunchly proud until his death in 1907, aged 79. While I’m on the subject of dates, I would like to clarify once and for all, definitively, that Stephens was born on 10 October 1827, not 1828, as numerous Pre-Raphaelite books over the decades have stated. Stephens’s baptism record, together with a letter he wrote to William Rossetti in later life (UBC), confirm this. Furthermore, Stephens never spelt his name ‘Frederick’, even in his earliest correspondence; another oft-repeated mistake in secondary literature (William Gaunt’s gossipy The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy, 1942, falls into this trap).

F. G. Stephens, by an unknown photographer, ca.1890–1907. Colonel Stephens Railway Museum.

In 1896, William Michael Rossetti edited and published New Poems by Christina Rossetti, Hitherto Unpublished or Uncollected. After his sister’s death in 1894, Rossetti had ‘looked carefully through the materials which she had left behind her; found many things which I remembered, and others of which I knew little or nothing’. Among them was the following short, pretty verse:

Christina Rossetti, ‘Golden Holly’, in New Poems by Christina Rossetti, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1896), p. 165.

The poem has much in common with the playful nursery rhymes in Christina’s Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, published in 1872, the year ‘Golden Holly’ was probably written. With its simple AA BBB rhyme scheme, and its light, skipping iambic tetrameter, the poem could have been written for a child. Which, in fact, it was, and for one child in particular: Holman Fred Stephens, the son of Frederic and his wife Rebecca Clara, born on 30 October 1868. William Michael Rossetti’s explanatory note for ‘Golden Holly’ reveals all:

New Poems, p. 385.

Young Holman had been named after his godfather, Holman Hunt, at a time when Hunt and Stephens were still friends – this friendship, which dated back to 1845, was not to last, and ended on a tragically bitter note. Hunt’s lengthy, two-volume autobiography, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (vol. 1, vol. 2), published in 1905, abounded with personal attacks against Stephens and other PRBs. Stephens rose to defend himself by printing letters in The Times and issuing a pamphlet to a long list of artists, writers and editors that included Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Waterhouse, Philip Burne-Jones (son of Edward, who had died in 1898), Edmund Gosse and the widows of Thomas Woolner and William Allingham.

William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (London: Macmillan, 1905), vol. 2, p. 436.

What had begun as a homosocial artistic friendship in the 1840s and 1850s – consider, for example, the painting expedition Stephens and Hunt made to Sevenoaks in autumn 1850, and the sensitive portrait Hunt painted of Stephens in 1846–7 (below) – had soured, over half a century later, into a battle of words, mediated through publicly and privately printed texts. The reasons behind this are numerous, beyond the scope of a simple blog post – or one to save for a future post, perhaps.

William Holman Hunt, F. G. Stephens, 1846–7. Oil on panel, 20.3 x 17.5 cm. Tate.

One issue I’m still grappling with is Stephens’s posthumous descent into near obscurity, owing to which I’ve titled my thesis The Hidden Pre-Raphaelite: Frederic George Stephens, Artist and Critic. His name has long been to known at least to adherents of Pre-Raphaelitism – usually when trying to remember the roll call of all seven original PRBs (it takes some remembering), or when quoting the occasional well-known passage from his writing, such as his insightful analysis of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s watercolour The Blue Closet in 1894 which likens the picture’s colour harmonies to a musical composition. Art historians have either unanimously dismissed Stephens’s own paintings as inferior to those by the other PRBs, or simply overlooked them. This disregards the artist’s years of training at the Royal Academy (he enrolled in 1844), his demand as a portrait painter (he had at least five portraits on the go in 1854) and the documented fact of his having helped to teach Rossetti the rules of perspective (William Michael Rossetti’s PRB Journal, 16 December 1849: ‘In the evening Stephens came to Gabriel’s study to do his perspective.’)

Frederic George Stephens, Morte d’Arthur, 1849 (unfinished). Oil on wood, 59.5 x 74 cm. Tate; bequeathed by Holman Fred Stephens, 1932.

One of the central aims of my thesis is to examine Stephens’s art in a fresh light, and with the same close visual analysis and attention to primary sources – letters, journals, drawings – that have been paid to the paintings of Millais, Hunt and Rossetti throughout the twentieth century. Stephens’s fellow PRB, James Collinson (‘Who?’, some would ask) has been similarly neglected, as have the sculptures of Woolner, although I’ll leave those projects to other scholars for the time being. In his art writing, which gathered steam in the mid-to-late-1850s with articles in the Critic in the UK and the Crayon in the USA, he disseminated Pre-Raphaelite ideals and aesthetics to a wide readership both at home and overseas. After being appointed chief art critic for the Athenaeum in 1860, he championed the innovative photographic techniques of Julia Margaret Cameron in a series of reviews praising her work. Stephens’s written oeuvre became so vast in later years – for the Athenaeum alone he wrote over 2,000 articles; it was a weekly publication, and he retired in 1900 – that I have had to refine the chronological parameters of my thesis to cover the years between 1827 and 1870, focusing solely on his Pre-Raphaelite work whilst still acknowledging his connections to a much wider circle of other Victorian artists and writers. A coda section will address the 1905 controversy involving Hunt’s autobiography. Ultimately, I hope my thesis will generate a renewed interest in this founding Pre-Raphaelite Brother who played a crucial role in constructing the narrative of Pre-Raphaelitism we know today.

William Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, 27 July 1853. Pencil on paper, 22.2 x 15.8 cm. The Leicester Galleries.

Header image: F. G. Stephens, probably in the garden of 10 Hammersmith Terrace, London, by an unknown photographer, ca.1890s; Colonel Stephens Railway Museum collection, Kent.


One thought on “Understanding Stephens

  1. I’m very glad you’re researching Stephens, especially on his artistic output!!! I feel people should really be slowly making their way into researching each of the original members to provide a far stronger understanding of their backgrounds and contributions to the movement. Personally, I’m still waiting for someone to curate a solo exhibition on Thomas Woolner.

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