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

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

For my PhD I will be focusing on the Pre-Raphaelite artist, critic and art historian Frederic George Stephens (1827–1907). One of the seven founding members of the PRB, Stephens’s life and work has been consistently overlooked in surveys of Pre-Raphaelitism, with the result that most people either haven’t heard of him or know very little about him. This is despite the fact that he played a vital role in communicating the Pre-Raphaelites’ ideals to the reading public. Stephens has never been the subject of a full-length study, and the only articles about him were written by Dianne Sachko Macleod for The Burlington Magazine in 1986: ‘F. G. Stephens, Pre-Raphaelite Critic and Art Historian’, and ‘Mid-Victorian Patronage of the Arts: F. G. Stephens’s The Private Collections of England‘. Although these articles shed some much-needed light on Stephens’s critical writing, they dismiss his ‘awkward attempts at painting’ and call his The Proposal (1850–1) ‘rigid and uninspired’. Stephens did struggle with the techniques of painting more than his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, but to gloss over his pictures entirely on the simple grounds of being  ‘awkward’ seems to me reductive. Similar opinions were long held about Elizabeth Siddall’s ‘naive’ art, but recently her work has been justifiably reappraised. The time is ripe for Stephens’s paintings and drawings to receive the same treatment; art history has progressed beyond the simplistic notion that ‘bad’ art (deemed bad by previous historians) is unworthy of any kind of analysis.

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

Stephens trained at the Royal Academy schools alongside Millais and Hunt, worked as Hunt’s studio assistant on replicas of The Light of the World (now at Manchester City Art Gallery) and The Hireling Shepherd (The Makins Collection), and helped Dante Gabriel Rossetti with the unorthodox perspective of Ecce Ancilla Domini in 1849. His three surviving paintings are now in the Tate: the unfinished Morte d’Arthur (King Arthur and Sir Bedivere) (begun 1849), The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda) and Mother and Child (c. 1854). Three works on paper also survive: a delicate sketch of the artist’s mother (Tate); a large and distinctive pen and ink drawing of a Chaucer subject, Dethe and the Riotours, gifted to Rossetti in 1852 (Ashmolean); and a watercolour portrait of Stephens’s wife Clara from the 1860s (Dennis T. Lanigan collection). Two further paintings, portraits of Stephens’s father and mother which were his only exhibited works at the RA in 1852 and 1854, are said to also be in the Tate collection, but there is no record of them on the museum website and they may need unearthing. This makes for a modest oeuvre of 8 works – Stephens claimed to have destroyed everything else. Besides working behind the easel he also modelled for a number of important Pre-Raphaelite paintings, with his features appearing in Millais’s Isabella (1848–9) and Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849–50), and Ford Madox Brown’s controversial Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6).

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

For obvious reasons I will keep my initial research findings under wraps. For now, in this post I’d like to just consider why Stephens has been so overlooked over the years. There are several possible reasons for this. Compared with the other Pre-Raphaelites, Stephens’s life was relatively uneventful. Millais, Hunt, Rossetti: artists remembered as much for their ‘colourful’ romantic entanglements as for their art. Millais’s involvement with Effie Gray; Hunt’s love for Annie Miller and the later scandal of marrying his sister-in-law after his wife’s death; Rossetti’s courtship of Elizabeth Siddall and his passion for Jane Morris. There’s no denying that the turbulent lives and loves of these artists have captured audiences’ imaginations as equally as the artworks themselves, forming the basis for numerous films, books, biographies and TV series. But what about Stephens? He married Rebecca Clara Dalton in 1866 and they enjoyed a stable, monogamous relationship that lasted until Stephens’s death in 1907. In 1868 they had a son, Holman Fred. When Stephens became the art editor of The Athenaeum in 1861 (he had abandoned making art by this time), he settled down to writing weekly articles, freelancing and publishing books on architectural history and monographs of British artists – no scandalous affairs, no adventurous travels to the Middle East, no outbursts of bohemian behaviour. In many respects he was quite conventional – something of a taboo word in Pre-Raphaelite studies that contradicts how we feel the Pre-Raphaelites behaved.

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

Stephens appears to have shied away from the limelight more than the other Pre-Raphaelites. Although he wrote a prodigious amount, many of his articles for periodicals (The AthenaeumThe CrayonThe Portfolio) were published anonymously or under a pseudonym, making them difficult to find. This habit began with his important early essays for the short-lived PRB magazine The Germ in 1850: ‘The Purpose and Tendency of Early Italian Art’ appeared under the name John Seward in the second issue, while for ‘Modern Giants’ in the fourth issue he unusually adopted a female pen-name, Laura Savage. William Michael Rossetti, the other prolific critic in the Brotherhood, published a bevy of titles under his own name towards the end of the 19th century, including The P.R.B. Journal, a memoir and a selection of family letters, confirming himself as the PRB’s official chronicler and bibliographer. By contrast, very little of Stephens’s writing is autobiographical; there isn’t much of himself in his work, so to speak. Christina Rossetti picked up on this preference for anonymity in her sonnet, ‘The P.R.B.’, composed in 1853:

Calm Stephens in the twilight smokes his pipe,
But long the dawning of his public day.

Rossetti aptly describes Stephens’s already quite marginal position within the Brotherhood, smoking his pipe contemplatively and offering his critiques from the shadows. It’s an image which is as accurate now as it was then: ‘his public day’ is yet to dawn; his important contributions to Pre-Raphaelitism are still to be recognised.

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

There are other reasons for Stephens’s obscurity, such as his disagreements with Hunt over the idealism of The Triumph of the Innocents (1876–85) that led to the dissolving of their long friendship and a certain blackening of Stephens’s name on Hunt’s part. Consider also the fact that Stephens’s artworks are not frequently reproduced or exhibited, and then only in passing. Stephens’s conservative opinions – his aversion to French Impressionism, for example – also present him as out of touch with the modernity of British art at the dawn of the 20th century (which perhaps he was). But the wealth of writing by him that survives, and the small but intriguing oeuvre of artworks that escaped destruction, should not be ignored.

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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.

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.

Scan 14 copy
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.

DMJ0104Z_09.tif
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.

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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.

‘In Memory’s mystic band’: Jonathan Miller’s Victorian ‘Alice’

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), 'Self-portrait', 1857. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Self-portrait, 1857. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll have been close to my heart since I first read them, when I was about 8 years old. Like many children before and since I was simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by their unpredictability, their frenetic madness and surreal logic — all enhanced by John Tenniel’s immortal illustrations (the image of Alice with the long neck, her eyes wide with surprise, was particularly startling). As I grew older I was keen to learn more about the books themselves, their Victorian social-historical context, as well as becoming interested in the life of the man himself, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. The eventual outcome was that I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Carroll’s literary and artistic connections with the Pre-Raphaelites, exploring not only his writing (prose and poetry), but also his photography and illustrations — looking to assert Carroll as an accomplished visual artist, besides being a mathematician and children’s author.

Title-page of the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, titled Alice's Adventures under Ground. Hand-drawn by Lewis Carroll, c. 1862-4.
Title-page of the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, titled Alice’s Adventures under Ground. Illustrated by Lewis Carroll, c. 1862-4. British Library, Add MS 46700.

Carroll created this gorgeous title-page for the manuscript which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then titled Alice’s Adventures under Ground. His inspiration clearly comes from medieval manuscripts, with its border of forget-me-nots, the widths different around each edge, and its delicate gothic lettering interlaced with foxgloves and trailing ivy. This is Carroll the book designer at work; the handwritten, illustrated pages, which took about two years to complete, were eventually bound in leather and gifted to Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church who is often inevitably labelled the ‘real’ Alice. It is interesting that William Morris, who attended Exeter College, Oxford from 1852-6, was also closely examining medieval manuscripts and practicing illumination and decoration (the earliest examples, illuminating poems and tales by Robert Browning, himself and the Brothers Grimm, date from 1856-7). Although they lived in Oxford at the same time, however, there is no mention in Carroll’s meticulous diaries that he ever met a Morris, or a Jones — although he did meet Arthur Hughes while the artist was staying in Oxford to assist with the Union murals.

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The Alice in these drawings is a melancholy Pre-Raphaelite girl, whose flowing hair and wide eyes bear little resemblance to Alice Liddell. Like Rossetti, Carroll lavishes particular attention to the waves of her hair — in fact in October 1863, when Carroll was midway through drafting these illustrations, he visited the Rossetti family at Chelsea to photograph not only their portraits, but also several drawings of women in D. G. Rossetti’s studio. Thus, the Alice of under Ground is the closest we can get to seeing Carroll’s own original vision of his heroine and the Wonderland she dreams up — like the drawings of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, we are afforded a glimpse into a private, personal world of fantasy.

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The melancholy, matter-of-fact oddness of Carroll’s illustrations fed into what is both the best Alice adaptation (in my view) and my all-time favourite film: the 1966 version, directed for the BBC by Jonathan Miller. This film, which I first watched in 2007, entranced me from the opening shot — Alice, tousle-haired and sullen, peers out from among vine leaves and recites the first lines of Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode in voiceover. This was an interpretation of Lewis Carroll unlike anything I had seen before, and it has stayed with me ever since. Gothic, brooding and deeply Victorian in design and tone, it intersperses its hazy summertime atmosphere with moments of Pythonesque silliness supplied by Peter Cook’s Hatter and Peter Sellers’s King of Hearts. I later learnt that the opening titles and end credits (seen above and below) were lovingly copied from Carroll’s under Ground manuscript.

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Miller’s film conjures the vanished world of nineteenth-century Oxford through the lens of a dream — as dreamt by the daughter of a dean. Julia Trevelyan Oman, the set designer, opted for a High Victorian approach, cluttering the interiors with bric-a-brac and taxidermy. Dick Bush, the cinematographer, purposefully shot in crisp, silvery black-and-white to evoke the work of early photographers such as Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron and of course Carroll himself — also using wide-angle lenses to distort proportions during the growth and shrinking scenes.

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All the scenes, with the exception of the final trial scene, were filmed on location at various country houses and estates in southern England, as well as at Sir John Soane’s Museum (for the Caterpillar, dusting architectural models). This approach, which differs significantly from the studio-based settings of most Alice films, creates a landscape of crumbling rectories, dusty churches, sculleries, meadows and walled gardens at the height of a Victorian summer.

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At the centre is a young actress whose performance as Alice has divided opinion over the years. Anne-Marie Malik, age 13, the daughter of a barrister, wanders through Wonderland with a characteristic silence and solemnity, a kind of detached, bohemian moodiness. This is completely at odds with almost all other adaptations, which portray Alice as a neat, rather cutesy sort of girl. Indeed, Miller chose Malik out of many other hopefuls precisely because of her sullen, nonchalant, seen-and-not-heard attitude, which he felt fitted his chosen Victorian mood. True to this notion, many of Alice’s lines are delivered in voiceover, without her opening her mouth — the dialogue with the Cheshire Cat, for example, is conducted as an imaginary conversation in her head as she strolls through a dappled forest. She appears to have little time for the absurdities of the (animal mask-less) adults around her, gazing into the distance and delivering her words in deadpan fashion.

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Her face is frequently framed with leaves and vines — this Alice is a child of nature, soon to mature into adulthood. Close-ups are reminiscent of Cameron portraits and Rossettian studies of the female face; there are so many arresting images and carefully composed tableaux that it is impossible to screenshot them all without essentially showing you the entire film. More than other Alice adaptations it achieves the authentically surreal atmosphere of a dream, but does so through simple feats of editing (cross-fading, for example), cinematography and sound.

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Another memorable aspect of the production is its soundtrack, composed of natural sounds (cooing wood pigeons are especially recurrent) and a score by Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitarist who most famously worked with the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released only months after Miller’s film was broadcast in December 1966. The clip below shows Shankar at work on recording passages for the film.

Miller has stated that he used sitar music to hark back to the British Empire in India, and also because the languid droning of the sitar echoes the buzzing of insects, the texture of dry grass, on a hot day. These intentions have been slightly lost on contemporary reviewers and bloggers, who tend to view the Shankar soundtrack as an attempt at ’60s psychedelica. Certainly it’s very much of its time, and sounds remarkably similar to ‘Within You, Without You’, the woozy, sitar-led song by George Harrison on Sgt. Pepper. Lewis Carroll, of course, appears among the cast of faces on Peter Blake’s album cover.

This has only been a short look at one of the more memorable and original Alice in Wonderland adaptations, a film whose details and subtleties repay multiple viewings. Thankfully it’s available on DVD, though in a slightly different release to the BFI disc from 2003 (which includes a highly informative commentary by Miller himself). Miller’s Alice, like the brilliant and equally distinctive 1988 film by Jan Švankmajer, remains something of a curio alongside the bigger, better-known versions by Disney, Hallmark and Tim Burton (not that Burton’s film was actually any good). However, anyone with an interest in Carroll and his Victorian milieu will, after seeking it out, certainly find the film a treat.

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Malcolm Muggeridge (Gryphon), Anne-Marie Malik (Alice) and John Gielgud (Mock Turtle). BFI.

The Kubrick Connection: some Pre-Raphaelite references in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

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Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut, was first released in July 1999, only a few months after the director’s death. It quickly gained notoriety because of its strong sexual content and its unusually long shooting period which ran from November 1996 to Feburary 1998. On a more gossipy note its two stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, were still married at the time. Critics and audiences were left baffled; its deliberate languid atmosphere and slow pacing is mesmerising to some but frustrating to others, while it was (and still is) alternatively viewed as an art film or pornography, or both. More recently Eyes Wide Shut has been subject to various Illuminati theories, often focusing on the infamous ritualistic masked orgy which takes place in a secluded country mansion halfway through the film (heavily censored in US releases). When I re-watched the film a while ago, I noticed some interesting Pre-Raphaelite details and thought I’d share my ‘findings’. Caution: there will be spoilers, and some images may be NSFW.

As the film’s striking poster makes clear (above), Eyes Wide Shut is adapted from the 1926 German-language novella Traumnovelle (often translated into English as Dream Story) by the Viennese doctor and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler. To quote the blurb of the 1999 Penguin edition: ‘Like his Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud, Schnitzler was a bold pioneer in exploring the dark tangled roots of human sexuality.’ In adapting the novella Kubrick relocated the story from fin-de-siècle Vienna during Carnival season to modern-day New York during Christmas, though the central characters and narrative thread remain virtually the same. Kubrick’s reputation as an archetypal perfectionist director who controlled the details of every aspect of production, from sets to sound design, goes without saying. It is therefore intriguing that when Cruise’s character Dr Bill Harford (named Fridolin in Schnitzler’s book) enters a cafe near the end of the film, our attention is directed to two reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings hanging on the walls. The first is John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia (1894) by the door when Harford walks in; the second is Rossetti’s Astarte Syriaca (1877) prominently placed over the table at which Harford sits (below).

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John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894. Private collection.
John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894. Private collection.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877. Oil on canvas, 185 x 109 cm. Manchester City Galleries.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877. Oil on canvas, 185 x 109 cm. Manchester City Galleries.

Both paintings echo events in the film’s narrative, also reflecting its mood of sensuality, ritualism and exoticism. The cafe scene takes place the night after the masked orgy, during which Harford, having infiltrated a secret society, is unmasked and sworn to keep silent about what he has seen (below).

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During his inquiries into the strange events of the previous night, Harford is followed through the Manhattan streets by a man who is apparently keeping an eye on him — as a distraction he stops at a newspaper stand before going into the cafe. Kubrick’s mis-en-scène often reflects the psychological states of his characters, through the use of colours, camera angles and intertextual references. As a clear example of this, the black-and-white print of a reclining woman directly behind Harford when he sits down changes to what looks like a more chaotic, nightmarish image in the next shot (below).

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Knowing Kubrick this is far from being a continuity error. The second picture brings to mind the lustful revelries he witnessed the previous night, and foretells the newspaper’s revelation in the next shot — the masked woman who saved his life at the orgy has apparently been found dead of a drug overdose (below). As in Schnitzler’s Dream Story, Harford then visits the city morgue and sees her body. Unlike Schnitzler’s novella, it also transpires that this is the same woman Harford had encountered at a party at the very beginning of the film, a prostitute unconscious from an overdose in an upstairs bathroom. Are you confused yet? Waterhouse’s Ophelia, depicting the tragic moment before a woman’s death by drowning, is therefore an apt inclusion in the film’s decor.

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Rossetti acknowledged that Astarte Syriaca, one of his late monumental masterpieces, was influenced by Eastern mythology. Astarte, the ancient Syrian goddess of love more formidable than Aphrodite or Venus, looms large from a 6-foot canvas against a solar eclipse, symmetrically flanked by two torch-bearing angels. With her broad shoulders, long limbs and neck, heavy lips and abundant wavy hair, she is an imposing, Michelangelesque figure. Viewers who stand before the painting are placed on a lower level; ‘with the face removed to the top of the tall canvas,’ writes Prettejohn, ‘the viewer feels abject or subordinated, like a kneeling worshipper before a religious image.’ Jane Burden Morris’s facial features and bodily proportions were heavily stylised by Rossetti, almost to the point of abstraction, and we wrote a strange sonnet to accompany the picture:

Mystery: lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck’s inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the spheres’ dominant tune.

Torch-bearing her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty’s face to be:
That face, of Love’s all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle,–
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.

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It is possible that Kubrick intended the reproduction of Astarte Syriaca hanging in the cafe to refer back to the sensual ritualism of the masked ball, in which a man dressed in a red cloak and hood and carrying a staff and smoking censer paces the circle of women, in a large hall with Middle-Eastern architecture (below). The masked woman who sacrifices herself to save Harford is also symmetrically framed in a statuesque manner against a flattened, abstracted background from a similarly low vantage point — though this is a rather more tenuous link to Rossetti’s painting. In a more general sense, the inclusion of Astarte Syriaca is in keeping with the film’s dreamlike tone, which uses repetition (of locations, characters, music, colours, camera shots) to lull viewers into its slow rhythm.

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Eyes Wide Shut is also rich with references to the Viennese art of the 1900s which inflects Schnitzler’s original literary text. The paintings adorning the walls of Bill and Alice’s large apartment are reminiscent of Klimt and the Symbolists, and Kubrick’s continual, strategic use of mirrors, reflections and masks carry clear connotations of fantasy and identity. As a final point, for some reason one of the final shots of Kidman in the film reminded me of Rossetti’s Helen of Troy, or indeed any of the artist’s studies of  women with long feathery curls.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on panel, 31 x 27 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on panel, 31 x 27 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle.

William Morris’s ‘The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems’: a neglected classic?

William Morris in his early 20s, photographed by Walker & Boutall, 1855-7. Source: National Portrait Gallery.
William Morris in his early 20s, photographed by Walker & Boutall, 1855-7. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Victorian poetry is still widely studied in schools and universities in the UK. Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy and Lewis Carroll usually crop up somewhere, and particular poems, such as Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, have entered the public imagination. But where, I tentatively ask, is William Morris? Certainly his visual art gets recognised — I remember a friend at undergrad telling me she studied Morris patterns in school art lessons — and more recently his wide-reaching political ideals were the subject of the National Portrait Gallery’s Anarchy and Beauty exhibition. The poetry for which he was equally well-known in his lifetime apparently never made the same leap into twenty-first century recognition and understanding. Today it seems many people are unaware that Morris wrote and published a prodigious amount for most of his life — so much so that after Tennyson’s death in 1892 he was offered the title of Poet Laureate, but declined. If he had accepted, perhaps things would’ve gone differently for his poetry. However, I may be completely wrong in assuming that the only people who still read Morris’s poetry today are the keen scholars and enthusiasts of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite culture (there are a lot of us!).

Title-page of Morris's first published book of poems. Source: William Morris Archive.
Title-page of the first edition of Morris’s first published book of poems, 1858. Source: William Morris Archive.

Morris’s first collection, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, has fast become one of my favourite books of poems by a single writer. He was only 24 years old when it was published in 1858, and had written many of the poems while an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford from 1852-6, and while he assisted Rossetti with the Oxford Union murals in 1857. On first entering Oxford, as is well-known, he instantly found a lifelong friend in the young Edward Burne-Jones. The two deepened their shared love of the history, architecture, art and literature of the Middle Ages, and devoured Robert Southey’s 1817 reprint of Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century collection of Arthurian legends, Morte d’Arthur. In 1855, while visiting the house of Thomas Combe at Oxford, the young men saw their first Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Hunt, Millais and Rossetti — but it was the latter’s watercolour Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853) which enthralled them most. Burne-Jones was able to meet the artist in 1856, and Rossetti recruited him and Morris to paint the Arthurian murals the following year (Morris chose to depict Sir Palomides’s Jealousy of Sir Tristram and La Belle Iseult). Under these very specific conditions, in this rarefied atmosphere of high-spirited medievalism particular to Oxford in which, Georgiana Burne-Jones later recalled, ‘Edward and Morris were alone and communed with each other in their own world of imagination,’ Morris began to write poems glimmering with strange, vivid impressions of medieval life. The tendency had clearly started young: as a child, apparently, he took to dressing in replica armour and riding through Epping Forest on a small pony to admire the faded tapestries in Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blue Closet', 1856-7. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blue Closet, 1856-7. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm. Tate.

For some reason I find the poem titles as beautiful as the poems themselves, establishing an alliterative, sing-song, fairy tale quality from the outset: ‘Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘The Gilliflower of Gold’, ‘The Eve of Crecy’, ‘The Little Tower’, ‘The Blue Closet’, ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’, ‘Golden Wings’, ‘Two Red Roses Across the Moon’, and so on. Already an enigmatic, dreamlike atmosphere suggests itself — for we wonder what on earth is a gilliflower of gold, or a blue closet, or a tune of seven towers? What would the tune of seven towers sound like? Perhaps the word ‘suggests’ is the most important here: these poems rarely reveal everything at once, but often remain tantalisingly elusive, withholding solutions, even at their end. They are more like mood-pieces than articulations of particular narratives — as if, instead of simply retelling the types of chivalric stories Morris found in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, he was keen to evoke the colours, sounds and emotions one might experience inside a medieval romance. Indeed, his characters are often entrapped or enclosed in mysterious, isolated locations — an castle on the sea, a tower in a thick wood, a ruined chapel at night — and the reader is drawn momentarily in with them. The general tone, then, is akin to Pre-Raphaelite visual art of the mid-to-late 1850s, especially the watercolours and drawings of Rossetti and Burne-Jones which also act as windows onto imagined medieval worlds populated with melancholy knights, damozels and courtiers. The Rossetti watercolour above, The Blue Closet, directly inspired the Morris poem of the same name, and Morris actually dedicated The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems to Rossetti.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Knight's Farewell, 1858. Pen and ink on vellum. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Knight’s Farewell, 1858. Pen and ink on vellum, 17.6 x 24.2 cm.. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Another Rossetti painting which intrigued Morris enough to write a poem is the watercolour The Tune of Seven Towers (below). We must be cautious, however, about attempting to understand the picture through the poem, and vice versa; each is a separate imaginative work in its own right, and apart from sharing the same title the two actually bear little resemblance to one another. Many years later, in 1872, Rossetti himself famously wrote of Morris’s work: ‘the poems were the result of the pictures, but do not at all tally to my purpose with them, although beautiful in themselves.’ Morris’s ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ is a perfect example of the kind of lyrical mysteriousness (excuse that vague phrase) outlined in the previous paragraph — very little actually happens in it, but there is much dreamlike, even gothic imagery as well as (like Rossetti’s watercolour, actually) an air of sadness, isolation and entrapment. The best way to explain it is to show it:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Tune of the Seven Towers, 1857. Watercolour on paper, 31.4 x 36.5 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Tune of the Seven Towers, 1857. Watercolour on paper, 31.4 x 36.5 cm. Tate.

No one goes there now:
For what is left to fetch away
From the desolate battlements all arow,
And the lead roof heavy and grey?
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

No one walks there now;
Except in the white moonlight
The white ghosts walk in a row;
If one could see it, an awful sight,–
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

But none can see them now,
Though they sit by the side of the moat,
Feet half in the water, there in a row,
Long hair in the wind afloat.
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

If he will go to it now,
He must go to it all alone,
Its gates will not open to any row
Of glittering spears — will you go alone?
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

By my love go there now,
To fetch me my coif away,
My coif and my kirtle with pearls arow,
Oliver, go to-day!
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

I am unhappy now,
I cannot tell you why;
If you go, the priests and I in a row
Will pray that you may not die.
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

If you will go for me now,
I will kiss your mouth at last;
[She sayeth inwardly]
(The graves stand grey in a row.)
Oliver, hold me fast!
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

What, then, can we be certain of in this poem? Already the opening images of ‘desolate battlements’, ‘the lead roof heavy and grey’ and ‘white moonlight’ in which ‘white ghosts walk in a row’ do not fit with the rich, glowing colours of Rossetti’s watercolour. In stanza 4 there is a subtle shift from a third-person to a first-person narrator, though their speech is not in speech marks: ‘If he will go to it now, / He must go to it all alone, / […] Will you go alone?’ The remaining stanzas are apparently spoken by this unnamed woman, whom we might take to be the lady in red sitting in the peculiar chair in Rossetti’s Seven Towers; while Oliver, the man she addresses, is surely the figure dressed in green and gold sitting mournfully beside her. Again, we can’t be certain of this. In stanza 5 the lady engages Oliver on some sort of quest to retrieve her coif and her kirtle ‘with pearls arow’; if he does go, she says in the next stanza, she and the priests will pray he may not die. In the final stanza she promises to kiss him if he returns — but he apparently does not, and after a rather cinematic cutaway shot in parentheses of ‘(The graves stand grey in a row)’ she cries ‘Oliver, hold me fast!’ and the poem ends. Has he died? Has she died? Have they now become the white ghosts mentioned at the start, sitting by the edge of the moat with ‘long hair in the wind afloat’? Or were they always ghosts, doomed forever to enact the same empty ritual? The refrain at the end of each stanza (a common feature of Morris’s poems), ‘ “Therefore/Listen!” said Fair Yoland of the flowers, / This is the tune of Seven Towers.”‘ gives no clues.

William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-8. Oil on canvas, 71.8 50.2 cm. Tate.
William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-8. Oil on canvas, 71.8 50.2 cm. Tate.

In today’s age of clear-cut answers and thirsted-for fact, ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ and the other poems in Morris’s Defence of Guenevere are self-contained mysteries which repay quiet, contemplative readings and re-readings. Some do have more of a narrative focus: the title poem, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, was inspired by Robert Browning’s psychological dramatic monologues and is told from the perspective of Queen Guenevere as she recounts her affair with Sir Launcelot in a long speech of self-vindication. Its prominence within the collection led to Morris’s only surviving easel painting, La Belle Iseult (above) being frequently mis-titled as Queen Guenevere over the years. Admittedly I’m a fan of literary works with ambiguities and open-endings — the two examples I always use are Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Joan Lindsay’s novel/Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock, both of which resist the traditional tell-all ending and are all the more memorable for it (people still speculate what ‘went on’ with the governess; people will always be wondering what on earth happened to the three schoolgirls and their teacher on Hanging Rock).

Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer in 1874. Platinum print. National Portrait Gallery.
Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer in 1874. Platinum print. National Portrait Gallery.

Victorian critics were mostly baffled by, and disparaging of Morris’s book. In April 1858 the Athenaeum rejected Morris’s ‘book of Pre-Raphaelite minstrelsy as a curiosity which shows how far affectation may mislead an earnest man towards the fog-land of Art.’ To add to this, the work was not a commercial success — although, as Dinah Roe points out, contemporary observers did identify it as the first book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. In 1933 Laurence Houseman (brother of A. E.) published a lecture he had given in 1929, titled ‘Pre-Raphaelitism in Art and Poetry’. Describing a passage from Morris’s ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End’, he declares: ‘This is your Pre-Raphaelite picture, with its strange blend of detailed externality and intense inwardness of feeling.’ Near the end he singles out The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, ‘partly because I think its beauty is insufficiently recognised, partly because in no other does the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite movement so clearly declare itself.’ The book therefore stands as an important landmark in English poetry as the first cohesive literary product of an art movement whose influence is still felt today.

Although the book itself is now out of print, a generous selection was included in the Penguin Classics anthology The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin, edited by Dinah Roe. A particularly good edition to get is Volume 1 of The Collected Works of William Morris, edited by William’s daughter May and first published in 1910. It includes not only The Defence of Guenevere in its entirety, but also Morris’s equally haunting, dreamlike early short stories, such as ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’, ‘Lindenborg Pool’ and ‘The Hollow Land’, from The Hollow Land and Other Contributions to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. A reprinted facsimile of this edition is available on Amazon through print-on-demand. I’ll leave you with this beautifully simple passage from ‘Rapunzel’, of course based upon the fairy tale and which inspired Morris to decorate a medieval-style chair with a now-faded image of ‘Glorious Guendolen’s golden hair’ (below):

THE PRINCE
For leagues and leagues I rode,
Till hot my armour grew,
Till underneath the leaves
I felt the evening dew.

THE WITCH
Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Weep through your hair!

RAPUNZEL
And yet — but I am growing old,
For want of love my heart is cold,
Years pass, the while I loose and fold
The fathoms of my hair.

William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, Glorious Guendolen's Golden Hair, c. 1856-7. Painted chair. Delaware Art Museum.
William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, Glorious Guendolen’s Golden Hair, c. 1856-7. Painted chair. Delaware Art Museum.