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Given the fact my thesis is still in progress and unpublished, and because of certain copyright limitations, I must keep much of what I’ve discovered (and there’s a lot of it) under wraps for the time being.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.

‘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).

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).
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.