Pre-Raphaelites in Cornwall

Like my previous post about Pre-Raphaelite livestock, I must begin this with a personal note. In 2001, when I was 8 years old, my family moved from Shropshire down to Cornwall, where I spent the next 10 years. We lived for that time in and around a village called Feock, a few miles outside Truro and near the so-called Carrick Roads (not a road at all, but actually an estuary of the River Fal). Although I no longer live in Cornwall, I remain fond of the beautiful county where I spent my formative years. So I was fascinated to discover that William Holman Hunt visited it and produced a number of exquisite watercolours and sketches of the Cornish coastline. Here I should note that much of the information in this post has been gleaned from two sources: Judith Bronkhurst’s exhaustive and indispensable catalogue raisonne of Hunt’s paintings, drawings and watercolours; and Hunt’s two-volume memoir first published in 1905, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (previously discussed here; available online on the Internet Archive, Volume 1 and Volume 2).

Map of Cornwall, published in Thomas Moule's English Counties (1837)
Map of Cornwall, published in Thomas Moule’s English Counties (1837).

Anyone who has visited Cornwall will have some idea of its geographical remoteness – a characteristic which is both the region’s blessing and its curse. Its miles of rugged cliffs and unspoilt beaches, as well as the exceptional quality of its light and the unusual, even Mediterranean ‘blueness’ of the ocean in the summer months, have appealed to many British artists for more than 200 years. Turner, John William Inchbold, John Brett and Henry Scott Tuke all travelled to the south west in the 19th century (Tuke’s family had moved to Falmouth in 1859). The late nineteenth century saw the flourishing of the so-called ‘Newlyn School’, a colony of realist painters based in the village of Newlyn near Penzance. Virginia Woolf summered in Cornwall as a child in the 1880s and ’90s, and her first truly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), opens with impressionistic descriptions of the Cornish seaside; not to mention To the Lighthouse (1927), informed by childhood memories of St Ives. In the 20th century, most famously, the county attracted and inspired a large circle of modernist painters, sculptors and writers – among them Barbara Hepworth, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Sven Berlin and Christopher Wood – who decamped from London to settle in St Ives. The Tate opened an outpost museum there in 1993, and also maintain the Barbara Hepworth Museum in St Ives, as a result of the town’s prominent role in the development of modern British art.

Forbes
Stanhope Forbes, The Pier Head, 1910. Oil on canvas. Geelong Gallery Collection. An example of the Newlyn School style.

In September 1860 Holman Hunt and Valentine Cameron Prinsep travelled from London down to Penzance. They took the boat over to the Scilly Isles to join Alfred Lord Tennyson, Francis Turner Palgrave and Thomas Woolner, who were beginning a walking tour of Cornwall. I speak from personal experience when I say that this is no small journey to make, even today; the trip from London down to the south-westernmost tip of the country must have felt like quite the artistic pilgrimage in 1860. Presumably Hunt and Prinsep travelled by train – the Penzance station opened in 1852, allowing easier access to one of the most remote spots in Britain. ‘After a day spent in visiting the gardens of the Scilly Isles,’ Hunt writes, ‘we returned to Penzance. During the intercourse of this journey we were much engaged in discussions on the character of English poetry of all periods.’ (Woolner had left them by this point.) We are told that F. T. Palgrave was working at that time on compiling his famous Golden Treasury, which would be published the following year. Palgrave was understandably giddy with excitement at spending so much time in the company of the Poet Laureate; The Golden Treasury is actually dedicated to Tennyson, whose ‘encouragement, given while traversing the the wild scenery of Treryn Dinas [in Cornwall], led me to begin the work’.

Valentine Cameron Prinsep, photographed by David Wilkie Wynfield, 1863. National Portrait Gallery.
Valentine Cameron Prinsep, photographed by David Wilkie Wynfield, 1863. National Portrait Gallery.
Francis Turner Palgrave, by Samuel Lawrence, 1872. National Portrait Gallery.
Francis Turner Palgrave, by Samuel Lawrence, 1872. National Portrait Gallery.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, by James Mudd, 1861. National Portrait Gallery.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, photographed by James Mudd, 1861. National Portrait Gallery.

Hunt supplies evocative descriptions of the group as they roamed the Cornish coast: ‘Tennyson in his slouch hat, his rusty black suit, and his clinging coat, wandering away among the rocks, assiduously attended by [Palgrave], and if by chance the poet escaped his eyes for a minute, the voice of Palgrave was heard above the sea and the wind calling “Tennyson, Tennyson”.’ Hunt recounts a conversation regarding Tennyson’s paranoia about his celebrity status – the poet feared that mobs of admirers lurked to accost him at every turn, and asked his companions not to say his name out loud in hotels and other public places – and tells of how the party journeyed to Helston, with Tennyson travelling in a dog-cart because of an injured foot. They also spent three days at Falmouth, where they chanced to meet Julia and Hester Sterling, the nieces of the Reverend F. D. Maurice, the Christian Socialist minister who was depicted in Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852-63). Most of the time, however, Hunt and Prinsep sat on the cliffs and sketched and painted. Asparagus Island, located in Kynance Cove on the Lizard Peninsula, was the subject of a gloriously detailed and luminous watercolour by Hunt (below).

William Holman Hunt, Asparagus Island, Cornwall, 1860. Watercolour, 20 x 26 cm. Private collection.
William Holman Hunt, Asparagus Island, 1860. Watercolour, 20 x 26 cm. Private collection. Note: I believe this reproduction is slightly more vivid than the original.

Hunt has applied watercolour in a dense, meticulous fashion that disguises the liquidity and spontaneity traditionally associated with that medium. (Compare it with Inchbold’s atmospheric watercolour study of the cliffs at Tintagel in Cornwall executed at around the same time, below.) His depiction of the landscape – or seascape, perhaps – is intensely textural, in that he contrasts the hard ruggedness of the cliffs with the foaming, swirling waves that have gradually and relentlessly hewn the rocks into their present forms over thousands of years. In his memoir the artist expressed a preference for ‘the purple marble rock polished and made lustrous by the sea washing it in calm and storm.’ With this in mind, Asparagus Island appears a kind of semi-precious stone set into a water surround. It also reflects the Victorian interest in geology, previously explored by Hunt in Our English Coasts, 1852, another cliffside scene. The consistent level of detail throughout the watercolour does not prioritise one element over another, and the sea, in a constant state of flux, is depicted with the same minuteness as the island of bastite serpentine rock that squats unmoving at the centre of the composition. Colours are carefully balanced, so that the turquoise gradations of the ocean are softer notes echoing the stronger blues and greens of Asparagus Island. These are beautifully offset by a space of yellow sand to the right, visible at low tide. There are no visible human figures; instead, we as viewers are placed into the picture to become the observers observing the elements. Hunt has positioned us on a high promontory overlooking the cove, precariously, as if in midair. One can feel the strong Cornish sunlight warming the back of one’s neck; the wind blowing off the English Channel ruffles one’s hair.

Kynance Cove with Gull Rock and Asparagus as it appears today. Image: Wikipedia.
Kynance Cove with Gull Rock and Asparagus as it appears today, at a similar state of low tide as in Hunt’s watercolour. Image: Wikipedia.
John William Inchbold, Tintagel, 1861. Graphite and watercolour on paper, 17.6 x 25.3 cm. Tate.
John William Inchbold, Tintagel, 1861. Graphite and watercolour on paper, 17.6 x 25.3 cm. Tate.

It is a testament to Hunt’s powers of concentration that he painted the majority of his painstakingly detailed Asparagus Island in situ, perched on the clifftop – almost leading to the picture being lost forever. He gives an alarming account of how

For two or three days Val [Prinsep] and I remained working on the cliffs. My drawing was on a block, of which the sun had gradually drawn up one corner; this warped surface did not seriously interfere with my progress until one day a sudden gust of wind compelled me to put my hand on brushes in danger of going to perdition, when, turning round on my saddle seat, I saw my nearly completed picture circling about among the gulls in the abyss below. Luckily, a fresh gust of wind bore it aloft, until the paper was caught by a tuft of grass at the brink of the precipice. It proved to be within reach of my umbrella, which fixed it to the spot until with the help of my friend, I was able to rescue the flighty thing for completion. [Hunt, ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, vol. 2, p. 214-215.]

After its adventure of flying with seagulls and nearly plunging to a watery grave, the picture returned to the artist’s studio and was eventually purchased by Thomas Plint for 60 guineas, two years later, in 1862. This was an impressive sum for a watercolour.

Bronkhurst stresses the importance of the Cornwall tour for the artist: he produced ‘a prolific series [of works] on the trip in a creative burst of energy comparable to that characterising Hunt’s 1854-5 visit to the East.’ This series includes further landscape watercolours of the Lizard and also of Helston (one below, unfortunately in black-and-white).

William Holman Hunt, Helston, Cornwall, 1860. Watercolour, 19.4 x 25.7 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester.
William Holman Hunt, Helston, Cornwall, 1860. Watercolour, 19.4 x 25.7 cm. Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester.

Two further observational sketches are preserved in an album once in the collection of Charles Stanley Pollitt, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (acquired 2007; accession number WA2007.8). One is an accurate study of the sundial over the south porch of St Pol de Léon’s Church in the village of Paul, near Penzance; the other depicts the ancient Celtic cross in the churchyard at St Buryan, also near Penzance. The latter drawing also bears an interesting inscription, recording a discussion about the cross with the rural-accented sextoness of St Buryan: ‘Is there any history about it? or anything said about why it was put up? “Wull, it’s aboot as oold & ancient as the Church, it’s jist a foin thing for the stranger folk to see, but it wants a dale of pointing”.’

Photograph of cross head with crucifixion in St Buryan churchyard in Cornwall [c 1930s-1980s] by John Piper 1903-1992
Photograph of cross head with crucifixion in St Buryan churchyard in Cornwall, c. 1930s-1980s, by John Piper. Tate.
Although these Ashmolean drawings are undated they were almost certainly executed during the 1860 trip, as Hunt is not thought to have visited Cornwall again until the 1890s, and even that is uncertain. They also indicate the impressive number of sites that Hunt, Prinsep and their travelling companions were able to reach in a relatively short space of time; they ‘got around’. By the end of September they had left Cornwall to explore Devon – at which most Cornish folk will give a sharp intake of breath. They do their scones differently over the Tamar, you see, they spread the cream on first, before the jam, like barbarians.

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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.

Pre-Raphaelites at the Fogg Museum, Harvard University

It is difficult to find substantial collections of Pre-Raphaelite art outside the UK. The largest is at the Delaware Art Museum, which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, and I’d long been aware that the Fogg Museum at Harvard University also has a brilliant collection of works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Hunt. When I first visited Boston, last August, the Fogg was at the very end of its six-year, multi-million dollar redevelopment and so was closed — but last month I was able to return to Cambridge, MA, and finally see it for myself.

Level 2, Room 2013 of the Fogg. From left to right: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel' and 'A Sea-Spell'; Edward Burne-Jones, 'Day' and 'Night'.
Level 2, Room 2130 of the Fogg. From left to right: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’ and ‘A Sea-Spell’; Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Day’ and ‘Night’.
Level 2, Room 2013 of the Fogg.
Level 2, Room 2130 of the Fogg. Left to right: Gustave Moreau, ‘The Infant Moses’; William Holman Hunt, ‘The Triumph of the Innocents’; Daniel Chester French, ‘Spirit of the Waters’; Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Venus Epithalamia’, ‘Helen of Troy’, ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ and ‘Danaë watching the building of the Brazen Tower’.

The above photos give an impression of the museum’s light, uncluttered galleries, and also of the large proportions of Rossetti’s masterwork The Blessed Damozel, of which the Fogg version of 1871-8 is the original (below). One of the few paintings Rossetti based on one of his own poems (he usually worked the other way round), it is a synthesis of his favourite themes: love, death, female beauty, ‘floral adjuncts’, a kind of sensual, even pagan spirituality. The aforementioned poem, also titled ‘The Blessed Damozel’, was one of his earliest — the first draft dates from 1847 — and was particularly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ in its exploration of a beautiful heavenly lady mourned by her earthly lover. The latter occupies the narrow predella below, reclining in a shadowy grove; the predella format, a common feature in medieval and Italian Renaissance altarpieces, heightens the viewer’s sense of participating in the worship or veneration of beauty. Certain details of Rossetti’s literary work — those featured in the stanzas inscribed along the bottom of the frame he designed himself (below) — correspond with the painting, such as the three lilies held by the Damozel, the (almost) seven stars haloing her head, and the ‘newly met’ lovers embracing around her in Paradise. An especially striking feature of the picture is its thick, fluid brushwork, characteristic of Rossetti’s ‘Venetian’-inspired style from the 1860s onward, and a glistening quality to the paint presumably caused by the glazing.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel', 1871-8. Oil on canvas, 212.1 x 133 x 8.9 cm (framed).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’, 1871-8. Oil on canvas, 212.1 x 133 x 8.9 cm (framed). Source: Harvard Art Museums.
The earthly lover in the 'Blessed Damozel' predella.
The earthly lover in the ‘Blessed Damozel’ predella.
Poem by Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel', inscribed on the lower frame
Poem by Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’, inscribed on the lower frame.

Also on display is Rossetti’s A Sea-Spell, another large, opulent oil from the 1870s (below). As became the artist’s standard practice, the picture is paired with a sonnet inscribed on the frame and first published in his collection Ballads and Sonnets (1881). It’s hardly surprising that the mythology of the siren appealed to Rossetti’s artistic and poetic imagination — a motif in which female beauty proves devastating, fatal, in luring mariners to their deaths on the rocks. The sonnet itself is a beautiful arrangement of hypnotic alliteration:

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,
While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell
Between its chords; […]
She sinks into her spell: and when full moon
Her lips move and she soars into her song.

In both poem and painting the siren is trapped in an endless cycle of becoming mesmerised by her own song. Her tensed hands and wistful expression (modelled, like The Blessed Damozel, by Alexa Wilding) betray a sadness and ennui, while her lavish tresses of coppery hair, entangled in the branch above her head, further entrap her and indicate the passage of time through their long length. The composition is flat, claustrophobic and airless despite the outdoor setting, with only a hint of the sea between the leaves on the far left — in fact, without this small section of water, the seagull and the accompanying poem, there is no indication that the lady’s bower is by the ocean.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'A Sea-Spell', 1875-7. Oil on canvas, 111.5 x 93 cm (unframed).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘A Sea-Spell’, 1875-7. Oil on canvas, 111.5 x 93 cm (unframed). Source: Harvard Art Museums.

Two rich, impressive paintings by Hunt are also on show on the second floor: a version of The Triumph of the Innocents (below), and The Miracle of the Holy Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While both works are deeply religious, they each express a different facet of Hunt’s artistic programme. The Triumph vividly depicts the supernatural moment from the New Testament when the souls of the infants slain during the Massacre of the Innocents frolic jubilantly round the Holy Family fleeing Bethlehem (an event commonly referred to as the Flight into Egypt). With its visionary atmosphere, and being essentially an imagined scene, it is in the same vein as Hunt’s The Light of the World.

William Holman Hunt, 'The Triumph of the Innocents', 1870-1903. Oil on canvas, 75.3 x 126 cm (unframed).
William Holman Hunt, ‘The Triumph of the Innocents’, 1870-1903. Oil on canvas, 75.3 x 126 cm (unframed). Source: Harvard Art Museums.

On the other hand The Miracle of the Holy Fire (below) attempts to record, with a meticulous realism characteristic of the artist, a ceremony which still happens annually on Holy Saturday at Christ’s tomb in the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem — as observed by the Greek Orthodoxy. An Orthodox patriarch enters the tomb alone and prays, before emerging with what is believed to be the miraculous Holy Fire which is then disseminated to the gathering of candle-bearing worshippers. Contemporary photographs of the event illustrate how little the scene has changed since Hunt painted it. His composition is so panoramic and lively that the miraculous fire seems secondary to the many other figures and interactions within the crowd. Therefore, any sense of supernaturalism and religious awe evoked by the ceremony must also compete with Hunt’s microscopic interest in real people (each face could be an individual portrait), real lives and historical, anthropological authenticity. However, it could ultimately enforce the idea that without human belief, human worship and human interaction, miracles such as the Holy Fire could never take place — a meeting-point between man and the divine.

William Holman Hunt, 'The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre', 1892-9. Oil and resin on canvas, 92.1 x 125.7 cm (unframed).
William Holman Hunt, ‘The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre’, 1892-9. Oil and resin on canvas, 92.1 x 125.7 cm (unframed). Source: Harvard Art Museums.

Prior to my visit I had asked to see specific works not on public display. This was actually easily done — Harvard Art Museums have made their collection as accessible as possible, allowing anyone (not just Harvard students) to view particular works on request in the new study rooms upstairs (though for practical purposes the really large paintings and sculptures can’t be brought up from storage). It just so happens that the Fogg holds an impressive number of Rossetti works on paper, which, for my MA dissertation on his watercolours, were fascinating to examine up-close in a well-lit and quiet surrounding. I’d expected the works to be simply mounted in the usual archival fashion — instead, they were hung along the wall in their distinctive original frames. Among them were a large watercolour replica of DGR’s famed Beata Beatrix (the first version, painted in oils from 1864-70, is at Tate Britain), and the watercolour Lucrezia Borgia, a replica of an earlier watercolour of 1860-1 now also in the Tate. It was encouraging to see one of the driving points of my thesis — that Rossetti continued producing watercolours long into the 1860s and ’70s — so much in evidence, and it would be great to see the Fogg make more of their superb collection in future.

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D. G. Rossetti, ‘Beata Beatrix’, 1871, watercolour version (left); ‘Lucrezia Borgia’, 1871.

The above works ensure that the Fogg is one of the best places to see Pre-Raphaelite art outside the UK. No P.R.B. or general Victorian art pilgrimage in Boston is complete without a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, home to Rossetti’s pivotal painting Bocca Baciata (below), Burne-Jones’s Hope, Leighton’s The Painter’s Honeymoon and William J. Webbe’s charming Rabbit amid Ferns (below); then to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an enchanting poem of a house containing a Rossetti panel, Love’s Greeting, as well as Whistlers, Sargents and art objects from throughout history.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Bocca Baciata', 1859. Oil on panel,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Bocca Baciata’, 1859. Oil on panel, 32.1 x 27 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
William J. Webbe, 'Rabbit amid Ferns and Flowering Plants', 1855. Oil on canvas, 35.6 x 35.6 cm.
William J. Webbe, ‘Rabbit amid Ferns and Flowering Plants’, 1855. Oil on canvas, 35.6 x 35.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Haunting of William Holman Hunt

John Everett Millais, 'William Holman Hunt', 1853. Pencil, 23.5 x 18.9 cm. Source: National Portrait Gallery.
John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, 1853. Pencil, 23.5 x 18.9 cm. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Firstly, an apology for a lack of recent activity – that’s the life of a Masters student! I’ve begun research on my dissertation, the subject of which is D. G. Rossetti’s watercolours from 1850-70; watch this space. In the meantime I thought I would share a curious anecdote discovered in that most famous and comprehensive of Pre-Raphaelite documents, William Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. First published in 1905, this two-volume work is a mine of information from one of the Brotherhood’s founding members and did much to establish a standard narrative of its formation, though its viewpoint is understandably quite biased towards Hunt himself.

However, when I was flicking through a copy of Pre-Raphaelitism in the university library I came across two intriguing phrases in the summary of Chapter XI, ‘1851’, on the contents page: ‘The mysterious night walker at Ewell’, followed by ‘The ghost of the avenue appears’. Ever the fan of ghost stories, and with the delicious possibility of uncovering an M. R. Jamesian tale involving a Pre-Raphaelite artist, I leafed through the book until I found the appropriate passages. At that time, in autumn 1851, Hunt was about to commence work on The Light of the World (below), travelling to his uncle at Ewell, Surrey, and painting the door of an abandoned hut by candlelight and moonlight to capture the naturalistic effects of Christ’s lantern. Hunt records that after he first spotted this door, ‘on the river side […] locked up and overgrown with tendrils of ivy, its step choked with weeds,’ he returned to the path and walked on, at which point ‘a five-years-old memory of an altogether unexplained experience came into my mind.’ It’s worth quoting the next paragraph in full:

William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 122 x 60.5 cm. Keble College, Oxford. Scanned from Judith Bronkhurst, ‘William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné’ (Yale University Press, 2006).

At that date, arriving by the last train from London at the Ewell station on the other side of the village, the stationmaster shut up his office and came out with a lantern to walk home. I accompanied him, being glad of his light. When we had entered under some heavy trees I cautioned him that some white creature, probably an animal, was advancing towards us. ‘It will be sure to get out of our way,’ he said, and walked on unfalteringly. Yet I kept my eyes riveted on the approaching being. When we had come nearer I interrupted our idle chat, saying, ‘But it is steadily coming towards us.’ He turned up his gaze and was stopped by what he saw. The mysterious midnight roamer proved to be no brute, but had the semblance of a stately, tall man wrapped in white drapery round the head and down to the feet. Stopping within five paces from us, he seemed to look through me with his solemn gaze. Would he speak? I wondered. Was his ghostly clothing merely vapour? I peered at it; it seemed too solid for this, yet not solid enough for earthly garb. We both stood paralysed and expectant. Then the figure deliberately marched to our left, making a half-circle around us, till he regained the line he had been travelling upon, and paced majestically onward. (Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism, Vol. I, p. 296.)

When Hunt asks the stationmaster ‘What is it?’, the latter replies, ‘It’s a ghost. […] I have seen it more than enough.’ Hunt immediately wants to follow the shape, even asking for the man’s lantern ‘that I may pursue and examine it.’ He delays too long, however, and the white figure vanishes into the night; he arrives at his uncle’s house with the mystery unsolved. This occurrence in 1846, then, is told through the literary device of a flashback.

Cut back to 1851, five years later. Hunt goes on to describe his routine for painting The Light of the World: outdoors, at night, in an ‘old orchard’ at Ewell, sitting in a little ‘sentry-box built of hurdles’ and with his feet in a sack of straw to keep off the biting cold (such dedication to the Pre-Raphaelite cause!). He worked from about 9 p.m. to 5 a.m before retiring to the house to sleep. For the benefit of our mysterious story it is worth quoting the next paragraph, which describes a second incident:

My first experience in nocturnal labour was alarming. The handsome avenue in front of the farm was, of course, known to be haunted. I promised to be on my guard against the shameless duchess or any of her crew, that they should have no excuse for taking away my character. For an hour the stillness chequered by the going in and out of the farm servants, then my friends came out ere they retired to sleep and chatted with me, wrapped against the cold. Shortly after, the lights seen through the windows were extinguished one by one, and a quiet, deep sense of solitude reigned over all. […] I plied my brush busily, in turn warming my numbed fingers in my breast. About midnight I could hear that there was another noise, like the rustling of dead leaves, and that this grew more distinct, evidently coming nearer as I paused to listen, but the road trodden by the thing of the night was hidden from me. Yet I could not the less certainly measure the distance of the waves of disturbed dried leaves. The steps had arrived at the face of the house, and now were turning aside to the orchard, where soon indeed I could see a hundred yards off a mysterious presence. (Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism, Vol. I, p. 299-300.)

It turns out to be just the village policeman on his nightly rounds. Nevertheless Hunt reveals his talents as a writer here – his evocative descriptions, built-up suspense and genuinely creepy imagery would not be out of place in a novel by Wilkie Collins (the famous opening of The Woman in White comes to mind) or Sheridan Le Fanu (Uncle Silas in particular). Furthermore, while a natural explanation for the second incident does reveal itself, the first, involving the strange white figure in the dark woods, is left ambiguous simply because Hunt himself could discover no reason behind it.

Detail of 'The Light of the World'.
Detail of The Light of the World.

The above accounts did get me thinking about their relation to Hunt’s art. The Light of the World has always struck me as having an atmosphere somewhere between the natural and supernatural: on the one hand the many passages of minute detail, from the clustered brambles to each little aperture of the lantern, are true to what can be directly observed by both the artist and his subsequent audience (us); on the other hand the luminous greenish light of the background, indeterminable as either dawn or twilight, and the glowing disc which is simultaneously the moon and Christ’s halo, are all ethereal, unworldly elements. Gothic details can be found in the ivy and the brown bat hovering over the doorway. Christ is a supernatural presence in the context of this painting; Hunt presents the spiritual, allegorical message of Jesus knocking on the door of the soul, which can only be opened from the inside. He is a ghost of sorts, and His direct gaze establishes a supernatural encounter with each viewer. Of course, as numerous scholars have noted, The Light of the World is likely to have originated in a kind of religious epiphany Hunt experienced when reading a specific passage in the Book of Revelation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in, &c.’ Indeed, the images I have supplied above show the spandrels of the canvas (usually concealed under the frame) in which Hunt inscribed ‘Me non praetermisso Domine!’ (‘Don’t pass me by, Lord’). Any feeling of uncanniness the painting holds is certainly enhanced by the nocturnal conditions in which Hunt painted it – not least being spooked by the village policeman rustling through the dead leaves at midnight!

William Holman Hunt, 'The Haunted Manor', 1849. Oil on board, 23.3 x 33.7 cm. Source: Tate.
William Holman Hunt, The Haunted Manor, 1849. Oil on board, 23.3 x 33.7 cm. Source: Tate.

As an addendum to this I thought I would include another painting by Hunt which has often intrigued me. Its title, The Haunted Manor, was apparently his own invention, and its size is actually very small. The majority of the foreground, with a babbling brook, was painted en plein air on a sketching trip with Millais to Wimbledon Park, south-west London, in 1849. But the background, comprising a hayrick on the left and an old manor on the right, was probably a later addition. According to Judith Bronkhurst the house is none in particular, but ‘may have been introduced in the hope that a certain narrative element would help the picture to sell at the forthcoming Liverpool Academy [of 1856].’ It is interesting, then, that the title specifies the manor as being haunted. The soft, green-gold lighting of the painting, evoking late afternoon at summer’s end, is somewhat deceiving, which is to say that its warm atmosphere does not immediately suggest a haunting – even changing the word ‘haunted’ to, say, ‘old’, ‘peaceful’ or ‘quiet’, alters the mood to something less (to use Lovecraft’s word) eldritch. Is it possible that some unknown presence resides in the distant house with the blazing windows? The literary work which immediately sprang to my mind when I first saw the painting was Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and its setting of Bly House, though these came much later in 1898. Hunt’s is a rather generic type of old English manor, with the expected tall chimneys and high gables, recalling the notion that any ancient house probably has something brooding within its walls.

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Further information

  • Both volumes of Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood can be read online on The Internet Archive.
  • Episode 3 of the BBC’s informative documentary series The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Revolutionaries, has a few minutes on The Light of the World (clip starts at relevant point).

‘Te Deum Patrem colimus’: ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’ by William Holman Hunt

The crowd gathered on Magdalen Bridge before sunrise on May Morning, 2013. Own photograph.
The crowd gathered on Magdalen Bridge just before sunrise on May Morning, 2013. Own photograph.
Magdalen Tower at sunrise on May Morning, 2013. Own photograph.
Magdalen Tower at sunrise on May Morning, 2013. Own photograph.

Anyone who lives in Oxford will be familiar with the ceremony of May Morning, on the 1st of May, when hundreds of students and citizens from Oxford gather on Magdalen Bridge in the minutes before sunrise. At 6 a.m., shortly after dawn, the bell of Magdalen Tower chimes the hour and the choir of Magdalen College sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus to greet the coming day. It’s a centuries-old practice in which, for a few moments suspended in time, the Christian and the pagan coexist in beautiful harmony: the act of praising the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature on May Day is a British custom rooted in the pre-Christian past, expressed in Oxford’s May Morning through Christian prayers and hymns. I’ve attended the ceremony twice now — last year and last week — and both times I’ve been haunted by the beauty of it all; the hymn echoes from the battlements over the gathered crowd and melts with the dawn birdsong into the still air and bright sunlight. For a long time I’ve been interested in the rites and rituals of pre-Christian Europe, and there’s something particularly special about Oxford’s tradition which may be Druidic in origin. So I was intrigued to discover that William Holman Hunt had painted his own version of May Morning on Magdalen Tower.

Hunt began the first version of the painting in 1888. On May Day of that year he was present on the Tower to witness the ceremony firsthand, and in the following weeks (as he writes in his memoirs) he ‘mounted the Tower roof about four in the morning with [his] small canvas to watch for the first rays of the rising sun, and to choose the sky which was most suitable for the subject.’ Here, then, Hunt remains ever faithful to the Pre-Raphaelite creed of portraying nature as truthfully as possible. This smaller painting, now in Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, was a preparatory version for the much larger canvas which Hunt worked on at the same time, which is now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. (Compare the two versions below.)

William Holman Hunt, 'May Morning on Magdalen Tower', 1888-91, retouched 1893. Oil on canvas, 38.8 x 48.9 cm. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.
William Holman Hunt, ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’, 1888-91, retouched 1893. Oil on canvas, 38.8 x 48.9 cm. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.
William Holman Hunt, 'May Morning on Magdalen Tower', 1888-90, 1890-91, retouched 1865. Oil on canvas, 154.5 x 200 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.
William Holman Hunt, ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’, 1888-90, 1890-91, retouched 1865. Oil on canvas, 154.5 x 200 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

The large version was first shown in a one-picture exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery, London, in May 1891. According to the pamphlet which accompanied it, Hunt expressed an interest in painting the May Morning ceremony as early as 1851, during his visits to Oxford. Thus, according to Judith Bronkhurst, May Morning may originally have been conceived as a pendant piece for Hunt’s A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids of 1849-50. The pamphlet also suggests that Hunt considered May Morning a religious work, in its portrayal of ‘a reverent act of worship [that accepts] the sun as a perfect symbol of the creative power’. No doubt the timeless, spiritual atmosphere of the ceremony chimed with his universalist, all-embracing religious sympathies: although the majority of the painting’s figures are clothed in Anglican choir gowns the act of singing to the rising sun is practiced in many world cultures, while the scattered flowers on the roof are a throwback to the venerations of Flora in spring festivals. In keeping with this pantheist ethos, on the far right of the painting is the figure of a Parsee, modelled for by ‘Mr Cama, an Indian merchant’ who apparently wished to be present on the roof. It’s also worth noting that the Indian Institute in Oxford was established five years before in 1883. All the other figures in the picture were painted from life, and Hunt searched the choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Duke of York’s School for models. Yet the boys found posing for Hunt a little tiring, and one boy, named Bramley, complained: ‘I had to stand for an hour on a plank with my mouth wide open.’

Detail of the choir boys from the smaller Birmingham version. Hunt's son Hilary is on the far right, garlanded with apple blossoms and holding the score of the Hymnus Eucharisticus.
Detail of the choir boys from the smaller Birmingham version. Hunt’s son Hilary is on the far right, garlanded with apple blossoms and holding the score of the Hymnus Eucharisticus. The lily held by the red-haired choirboy, at the centre of the composition, is an emblem of Magdalen College, a college dedicated to the Saints Mary Virgin and Mary Magdalene.

This painting is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite images — not only because of its connection with Oxford, reawakening memories of previous May Days in the city, but also for its gorgeous colours and abundant floral details. I particularly admire Hunt’s depiction of natural light on a spring morning, with large portions of the canvas filled with pinkish wisps of clouds and the brightening sky. It makes the painting feel airy and open, with glimpses through the battlements of the distant blue horizon to the south which the golden rays of the rising sun are yet to illuminate. Further details of the River Cherwell and, I presume, the greenhouse of the Botanic Gardens, can also be seen through the gaps in the Gothic masonry. The flock of birds flitting joyously overhead echoes the line of  young choristers underneath; both the birds and the people are singing their dawn choruses in the fresh light of spring. If online reproductions are anything to go by, the two versions of the painting are different in colouring: the Birmingham version is brighter, paler and more golden; the Liverpool version has deeper contrast and shadows and the light is rosier and more vivid, with a stronger sense of the sun having only just risen. Bronkhurst also notes a difference between the two versions in the bearded figure in the left foreground of Dr Varley Roberts, Organist of Magdalen College. In the Birmingham picture his right hand is raised over his head (see the detail above), but in the main version Hunt corrects this by positioning the hand outstretched at shoulder level, making it clearer that he is conducting the Hymnus Eucharisticus. Apparently, too, the larger version is more accurate as there were only 16 choirboys at Magdalen, and you can count 17 in the preparatory version. Nevertheless, in both paintings Hunt beautifully recreates the mood of reverence and the veneration of nature on May Day. Finally, a note on frames. The Birmingham version is set in a large circular copper frame which Hunt designed. It was executed by John Williams, a member of the Guild of Handicraft, which was founded by the Arts and Crafts designer Charles Robert Ashbee in 1888. Sunbursts radiate from the oblong panel, and on ribbons a quotation from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale is inscribed in Middle English: ‘And Fyry Phoebus ryseth up so brighte / That all the orient laugheth at the sight [sic]’. The outer edge of the frame is decorated with a scrolling floral pattern, and a lark outstretches its wings at the top. A considerably lavish treatment, given that this version is a study for a larger work! Pictures of the equally beautiful frame of the Liverpool version can be viewed on the Frame Blog.

The Birmingham version of 'May Morning on Magdalen Tower' in its spectacular round frame, designed by Hunt.
The Birmingham version of ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’ in its spectacular round frame, designed by Hunt.

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Further information

  • Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 1: Paintings (Yale: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 265-269.
  • Many videos of the May Morning ceremony and the Hymnus Eucharisticus can be found on Youtube. Here is a particularly good one from 2013, taken from the quadrangle of Magdalen College. The Latin words of the hymn, with engravings, can be read here.
  • The Birmingham version on the Google Art Project.

‘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.

‘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.