Painting the Flock: Pre-Raphaelite Livestock

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.

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View from Nordy Bank, an Iron Age hill fort in the Shropshire Hills near the village where I grew up. Own photograph, spring 2014.

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.

William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts 1852 ('Strayed Sheep'), 1852. Oil on canvas. Tate.
William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep), 1852. Oil on canvas. Tate.

The symbolism of the flock in Our English Coasts, 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 Hireling Shepherd (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.

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851. Oil on canvas. Manchester City Art Galleries.
William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851-2. Oil on canvas. Manchester City Art Galleries.

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.

The Hireling Shepherd in its original frame, carved with ears of wheat and corn to reflect the subject matter. Source: The Frame Blog.
The Hireling Shepherd in its original frame, carved with ears of wheat and corn to reflect the subject matter. Source: The Frame Blog.

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.

John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop'), 1849-50. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain.
John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’), 1849-50. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain.

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).

John Everett Millais, Study for 'Christ in the House of His Parents', circa 1849. Graphite on paper. Tate.
John Everett Millais, Study for ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, circa 1849. Graphite on paper. Tate.

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.

Ford Madox Brown, Pretty Baa-Lambs, 1851-9. Oil on canvas. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.
Ford Madox Brown, ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’, 1851-9. Oil on canvas. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

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.

Ford Madox Brown, The pretty Baa-Lambs, 1852. Reduced oil on panel replica of original. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Ford Madox Brown, The pretty Baa-Lambs, 1852. Reduced oil on panel replica of Birmingham original. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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.


Reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelites: Tom Hunter

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.

Tom Hunter, Death of Coltelli, 2009.
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) The Death of Sardanapalus Oil on canvas, 1827 154 1/4 x 195 1/4 inches (392 x 496 cm) Mus? du Louvre, Paris
Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris.

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.

Tom Hunter, The Way Home, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
Tom Hunter, The Way Home, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2. Oil on canvas. Tate.
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2. Oil on canvas. Tate.

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 OpheliaThe Way Home is 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.

Tom Hunter, Home, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
Tom Hunter, Home, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
Arthur Hughes, Home from Sea, 1862. Oil on panel. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Arthur Hughes, Home from Sea, 1862. Oil on panel. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59. Oil on canvas. Tate
John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-9. Oil on canvas. Tate.
Tom Hunter, The Eve of the Party
Tom Hunter, The Eve of the Party, from the series Life and Death in Hackney (1998).
John Everett Millais, The Eve of Saint Agnes, 1863. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
John Everett Millais, The Eve of Saint Agnes, 1863. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

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.

Pre-Raphaelites at the Ashmolean: ‘Great British Drawings’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Prosperpine' (detail), 1871. Pastel on paper, 97 x 46 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Twitter.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Prosperpine’ (detail), 1871. Pastel on paper, 97 x 46 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Twitter.

The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford holds one of the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the country. Gems by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, Ford Madox Brown and Frederick Sandys, among others, occupy the walls of the upstairs gallery (see rather poor-quality iPhone photo below), as well as sculptures by Alexander Munro and the impressive Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe painted by Burne-Jones. A frequent haunt of my undergraduate years at Oxford Brookes, this week I returned to the museum to see drawings and watercolours by Rossetti in the Western Art Print Room (strangely enough, though I didn’t realise it at the time, on the artist’s birthday) and also the brilliant current exhibition Great British Drawings.

The Pre-Raphaelite galleries at the Ashmolean Museum. From left to right: Millais, 'The Return of the Dove to the Ark'; Hunt, 'A Converted British Family sheltering a Missionary'; Charles Allston Collins, 'Convent Thoughts'.
The Pre-Raphaelite galleries at the Ashmolean Museum. From left to right: Millais, ‘The Return of the Dove to the Ark’; Hunt, ‘A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids’; Charles Allston Collins, ‘Convent Thoughts’.

The exhibition showcases some of the Ashmolean’s finest drawings and watercolours by British artists from the seventeenth century to the present day. It’s divided into five sections: Likeness, Sensibility & Vision: 1650-1830Travel & TopographyRuskin & the Pre-RaphaelitesDiversity & ConflictCaricature and Satire. For the purposes of this blog I will highlight a few of the works in the third section which appealed to me most.

Arthur Hughes, 'The Knight of the Sun', 1860-61. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 22.3 x 31.6 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
Arthur Hughes, ‘The Knight of the Sun’, 1860-61. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 22.3 x 31.6 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.

Arthur Hughes painted The Knight of the Sun as a watercolour replica of an oil painting of the same name, which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. According to Frederic George Stephens the picture ‘illustrates a legend, an incident of which declared how an old knight, whose badge was a sun, and who had led a Christian life throughout his career, was borne out of his castle to see, for the last time, the setting of the luminary he loved.’ To some degree, then, the picture is underpinned with a narrative, albeit an obscure one (the exact source of this legend is never described); but the concern here is much more with mood and atmosphere, with the gentle melancholy of sunset symbolising the passing of life. As with Millais’s Autumn Leaves (1855-56), Hughes heightens this sense of transience through an autumnal setting, as indicated by the spindly branches against the twilit sky in the top-right corner — these counterbalanced with the deep forest of evergreens from which the solemn medieval procession emerges. On a more technical note, his opaque, rich handling of his watercolours reflects the influence of Rossetti’s own paintings in that medium — more on that shortly.

John Everett Millais, 'The Death of the Old Year', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 8.4 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘The Death of the Old Year’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 8.4 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, 'Mariana', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.6 x 7.9 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘Mariana’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.6 x 7.9 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, 'St Agnes Eve', illustration for 'The Moxon Tennyson', 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 7.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.
John Everett Millais, ‘St Agnes Eve’, illustration for ‘The Moxon Tennyson’, 1855-57. Pen and ink on paper, 9.7 x 7.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum.

Above are three of the five original pen and ink illustrations Millais produced for the 1857 edition of Tennyson’s Poems, published by Edward Moxon — hence the frequently-used title of The Moxon Tennyson. It proved to be one of the most influential illustrated books of the Victorian period, with other drawings by Rossetti (for ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘The Palace of Art’, ‘Sir Galahad’) and Hunt (for ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘Godiva’, ‘Oriana’), among other radical artists. For their very small size Millais’s illustrations are highly finished and detailed. He had already depicted Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ in his gorgeous oil painting of 1851 (now in the Tate), but the drawing has a far more despondent, derelict tone — gone are the vivid colours and upright woman — in keeping with Mariana’s woeful speech repeated throughout the poem:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, weary,
I would that I were dead!’

My favourite detail in the ‘St Agnes Eve’ drawing is the little breath of mist from the mouth of the poem’s narrator — exactly what could be expected from standing in a cold convent staircase in the middle of winter and wearing only a nightgown!

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes;
May my soul follow soon!

‘The Death of the Old Year’, as the title suggests, is a meditation on life’s eternal cycle:

Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,
And the winter winds are wearily sighing:
Toll ye the church-bell sad and slow,
And tread softly and speak slow,
For the old year lies a-dying.

There is a sense of optimism in the poem; in the final stanza a ‘new foot’ is heard and a ‘new face’ seen at the door, that of the New Year. Millais’s drawing has the wintery landscape with snow piled at the belfry window, and an air of quiet stillness before the bell rings out in animated life — at which point the owl will presumably take wing and flee. As a side note, I liked the curatorial decision to frame the five drawings together under one mount.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Elizabeth Siddal', 1855. Pen and brown and black ink on paper, with some scratching out, 13 x 11.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Elizabeth Siddal’, 1855. Pen and brown and black ink on paper, with some scratching out, 13 x 11.2 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.

Of the many drawings Rossetti made of Elizabeth Siddall this is undoubtedly my favourite, and it was a treat to finally see it in person; its small size, smaller even than a postcard, surprised me. To scrutinise it under the lens of the Rossetti-Siddall romantic biography is almost to distract from its power as a solo, full-face, head-and-shoulders portrait of a woman — though undoubtedly Rossetti’s affection for her is manifested in the drawing’s sense of intimacy and its tender delineation of Siddall’s downcast eyes and pursed lips. The exhibition catalogue makes the interesting observation, easy to forget, that the portrait was probably drawn by gaslight, and also that Rossetti scratched away some of the ink to achieve the effects of light and shadow.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Ruth Herbert', 1858. Graphite on paper framed as an oval, 50.8 x 43 cm (frame). Source:
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Ruth Herbert’, 1858. Graphite on paper framed as an oval, 50.8 x 43 cm (frame). Source:

This beautiful drawing of the Victorian actress Louisa Ruth Herbert was acquired by the Ashmolean last year, along with a few other Rossettis (I was fortunate enough to be shown another portrait of Herbert, in watercolour, in the Print Room). Rossetti first saw Herbert at the Olympic Theatre in London in February 1856, only a few months after her official stage debut — as with Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth he sketched Herbert in numerous poses and varying degrees of decorum. The above has all the qualities of a Rossetti ‘stunner’, with abundant wavy hair, a long-throated neck, full lips and heavy-lidded eyes, lending it a definite air of sensuality despite the neat collar of her dress beneath. The drawing itself is finely detailed (note the stray strands of hair) with an overall softness.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice's Death', 1853. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 42 x 61 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death’, 1853. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 42 x 61 cm. Source: Ashmolean Museum, Facebook.

I have Rossetti’s watercolours on the brain at the moment, so it was a joy to examine one of his largest and most sumptuously coloured pictures at my leisure. The subject is related to Dante Alighieri’s 13th-century autobiographic text La Vita Nuova, one of Rossetti’s favourite pictorial sources which he also translated from the Italian in the 1840s. His brother William Michael posed for the figure of Dante, who, as the title suggests, has been drawing an angel a year after the death of his beloved Beatrice Portinari. What really came home to me in standing before the picture is that it presents the act of the visionary painter: rather than sketching the Florentine cityscape visible through the window, Dante has turned his gaze inwards for a far more unearthly vision, though one perhaps suggested by the curious angel heads lining the cornice of his chamber. Like Rossetti, too, Dante becomes both poet and painter; the latter is evident from the flasks of colour on the windowsill. The exhibition catalogue succinctly describes the artist’s highly inventive watercolour technique: ‘Rossetti painstakingly applied the almost dry pigment, giving a deep saturation of colour quite unlike the effect of traditional watercolour washes, but akin to the appearance of medieval manuscript illumination.’ The traditional layering of broad transparent washes, usually associated with the landscapes of Turner and others, are represented elsewhere in the exhibition, and it is a rare opportunity to compare such equally radical but aesthetically and technically different watercolour techniques.

Great British Drawings is on at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 31 August.


Further information

Millais’s Vision of Autumn

Autumn, that deep and most liminal of seasons, is very much upon us. The view framed by my window confirms it: swirling grey-blue sky, cool billowing wind, green treetops singed with browns and yellows; all falls, tumbles, and the light takes on its last moments of vivid brilliance before winter sets in. At this time of year a particular painting is often in my mind, particularly when I walk with flurries of dead leaves skittering at my feet — John Everett Millais captured that mood so evocatively in one of his finest paintings, Autumn Leaves, which he began in autumn 1855.

John Everett Millais, 'Autumn Leaves', 1855-56
John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1855-6. Manchester City Art Galleries.

Millais’s motive was, apparently, to create ‘a picture full of beauty and without subject’. This signalled a shift from the very specific literary, biblical and historical subjects of his earlier paintings — Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’, Keats’s ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Christ in the house of His Parents — to an emphasis on mood and more universal ideas. It has been said of Autumn Leaves, then, that it anticipates the artistic programme of the Aesthetic Movement, which often favours mood over morals. The universal idea which Millais expresses in this painting is of transience and mortality, with the season of autumn itself as an atmospheric symbol. Autumn’s archetypal emblems — the dead leaves, the smoke wreaths from the leaf pile, the apple held by the little girl on the right, the sunset — are all present, combining to create a richly textural image. (The dense pattern of leaves seems to spill out from the picture plane.) Furthermore, it is clear that the bright, crisp, ‘hard-edge’ style and minute brushwork of Christ in the House of His Parents has been deepened and loosened, with a darker palette and sometimes even sketchy brushwork around the edges of the picture.

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, 'Autumn', 1573
Guiseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573. Source.

Millais’s portrayal of autumn as a melancholy, transient season is more in line with English poetry than with artistic traditions. Arcimboldo’s eccentric picture from 1573 (above) is a good example of this previous approach in art, which tended to view autumn as a time of fecundity full of ripe fruits and luscious vegetation ready for harvest. Although Keats, writing in September 1819, famously called it the ‘season of […] mellow fruitfulness’ and describes in indulgent detail ‘all fruit with ripeness to the core’, English poetry more frequently aligns autumn with nostalgia and mortality. If the yearly cycle of seasons is taken as a metaphor for the human life, with spring as new life and winter as death, then autumn represents a period of transition between youth and old age. Indeed, the narrator of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 73’ takes autumn as ‘that time of year thou may’st in me behold’, likening it to his advanced years — following this with solemn imagery of ‘yellow leaves’, ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’ and ‘the twilight of such day’. Millais had more contemporary poetry in mind, since he was reading Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) at the time and would have seen the famous lyric poem within it, which begins:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

A further connection to Tennyson is that Millais was apparently greatly inspired to paint an autumnal subject after helping to sweep up and burn dead leaves during a visit to the poet’s home at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in November 1854.

In contrast to Arcimboldo’s image of Nature’s bounties the only piece of fruit in Autumn Leaves, the red apple, appears to be rotting, while the leaves themselves, once fresh and green in spring, are now being gently smoked away. Malcolm Warner, in the 1984 Tate catalogue, informs us that ‘the girls in the foreground, for all their youth and beauty, must inevitably go through the same processes.’ An especially foreboding detail of the painting is the presence of a murky figure holding a scythe in the left midground, veiled through the smoke; a similar portent appears with a more sinister clarity at the far right of Millais’s painting Spring (Apple Blossoms) four years later (below). This could easily be interpreted by the viewer as a symbol of death. The setting of Autumn Leaves in dusky twilight, that most liminal time between day and night, further enhances this theme. On a more practical level it also allows Millais to exercise his skills as a painter, brilliantly expressing the almost hallucinatory tones and harmonies of the sunset — blues, yellows, browns, blacks. One contemporary reviewer noted the painting’s ‘depth of feeling’, ‘grandeur’ and conveyance of ‘the spellbinding power of nature.’

John Everett Millais, 'Spring (Apple Blossoms)', 1856-59
John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1856-9. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool. Source.

The garden of Annat Lodge in rural Perthshire provided the backdrop for Autumn Leaves. Millais and his wife Effie (née Gray, formerly Ruskin) had settled there after their marriage in 1855. The spire of St John’s Kirk of Perth can be glimpsed in the background to the left of the painting, just below the horizon, perhaps also acting as a subtle religious reminder. The girls are, from left to right: Alice Gray and Sophie Gray (Effie’s younger sisters), Matilda Proudfoot, a girl from the local School of Industry, and Isabella Nicol, a maid’s daughter. According to Effie they were all ‘under 13 years of age and grouped beautiful[ly].’ There is something of a contrast between the clothing of the Gray sisters — matching dark-green velvet winter dresses, indicating a higher class — and the working-class outfits of the other two girls; Effie wrote that the brown dress worn by Matilda, holding her rake, was ‘the common dress of the School of Industry at that season’. Sophie Gray, who is in the act of dropping a handful of leaves onto the bonfire, is especially striking, with her loose hair and direct gaze. The upward positioning of her head recurs in Millais’s beautiful head-and-shoulders portrait painted in 1857 (below), which Jason Rosenfeld describes as ‘appeal[ing] to direct emotion and desire’.

John Everett Millais, 'Sophie Gray', 1857
John Everett Millais, Sophie Gray, 1857. Private collection. Source.

Millais returned to the dusky setting and mortality theme in his strange, haunting painting of two nuns in a churchyard, The Vale of Rest (below), which is also considered as a pendant piece to Spring (Apple Blossoms). For a simple conclusion, I need only return to Millais’s own words on the autumnal subject. William Holman Hunt, in his 1905 memoir Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, recalls Millais saying:

Is there any sensation more delicious than that awakened by the odour of burning leaves? To me nothing brings back sweeter memories of the days that are gone; it is the incense offered by departing summer to the sky, and it brings one a happy conviction that Time puts a peaceful seal on all that has gone.

John Everett Millais, 'The Vale of Rest', 1858-59. Source.
John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-9. Tate. Source.


Further information

  • The Pre-Raphaelites, 1984 Tate catalogue, pp. 139-141
  • Malcolm Warner, ‘John Everett Millais’s Autumn Leaves: “a picture full of beauty and without subject”‘, in Pre-Raphaelite Papers, ed. by Leslie Parris (London: Tate, 1984), pp. 126-142
  • Jason Rosenfeld, John Everett Millais (London: Phaidon, 2012), pp. 92-97

‘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


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.

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!).

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


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.