Reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelites: Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter is a contemporary British photographer whose work has reached international acclaim. He creates striking tableaux, often inspired by the urban landscape of east London (particularly Hackney) and drawing on the postures and compositions of Western genre and history painting, re-imagining them for a modern audience. See, for example, his Death of Coltelli (below) which uses the slumped pose of the female nude at the centre of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus for an image of abandonment and isolation.

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

Of interest for this blog is a series of 10 photographs entitled Life and Death in Hackney which Hunter began in 1998. In them he re-stages Victorian paintings by Millais, Waterhouse, Alfred Wallis and Arthur Hughes, among others, in a contemporary London setting. The result is a peculiarly heightened sense of reality — a reality of industrial decay and patches of nature quietly existing on the fringes of urban environments. A poignance and beauty is found in these otherwise maligned locales.

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

Hunter saw modern parallels for Millais’s Ophelia in a news story about a young woman who, on her way home after a night out, slipped into a canal and was tragically drowned. Like OpheliaThe Way Home is dominated by swathes of brilliant green foliage flecked with flowers. If Millais’s painting explores (among other themes) human life competing for existence in amongst nature, then Hunter’s suggests the fight for survival in a landscape in which the natural and the urban have become jarringly intertwined. Youth and freedom waver on the brink of tragedy and danger, leaving only lost hopes and dreams.

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

The above comparison is particularly striking, with Hunter quoting directly from Arthur Hughes’s 1862 Home from Sea. The empty arched window in the background of Hughes’s rambling country churchyard is echoed in the multiple broken windows of the abandoned warehouse in Hunter’s image; while the small bush of dog roses to the right of the young sailor’s head has expanded into a tangled mass of briars which threatens to engulf the couple. Hughes, it should be noted, originally exhibited his painting under the title A Mother’s Grave; but Hunter leaves the narrative of his photograph open-ended, for each viewer to decide. He also expresses a tension between past and present: the couple seems to be mourning for a lost loved-one, but the cemetery itself (which is probably Victorian) has been left to sink into disrepair, neglected by modern society.

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

Just as the Pre-Raphaelites did in paint, Hunter photographs in a sharp, even focus to capture every fine detail of his sitters’ surroundings. Rich, luminous colours are combined with subtle effects of natural light. The relationship between painting and the new art/science of photography was one the original Pre-Raphaelites were conscious of, at the time — though of course paintings still had the advantage of colour over sepia and black-and-white photographs.

Hunter’s work demonstrates that, far from being distant and Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite art engaged with social themes still very much relevant today: love, loss, death, social alienation. He explains on his website that Life and Death in Hackney is rooted in urban areas which were

the epicentre of the new warehouse rave scene of the early 90s. During this time the old print factories, warehouses and workshops became the playground of a disenchanted generation, taking the DIY culture from the free festival scene and adapting it to the urban wastelands. This Venice of the East End, with its canals, rivers and waterways, made a labyrinth of pleasure gardens and pavilions in which thousands of explorers travelled through a heady mixture of music and drug induced trances.

Is there some suggestion, then, that this urge for young people in the 1990s to formulate their own vibrant subcultures, consciously breaking away from mainstream norms, had its roots in the spirit of youthful artistic rebellion which led to the founding of the P.R.B.? Such a supposition is actually quite ingenious given the persistent general view that Pre-Raphaelite art is stale and sentimental. In casting the compositions of Millais, Hughes and others in a new light, Hunter invites us to reconsider our relationship with them, as viewers in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, and to remember how radical and controversial the art of the P.R.B. was in its day.


Debussy and Rossetti: ‘La damoiselle élue’

I first heard this particular piece of music by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) through Ken Russell’s biopic of the composer, The Debussy Film (1965). It stars Oliver Reed as an actor playing Debussy in a film about the composer’s life — a most ‘meta’ plot. Pre-Raphaelite fans will know Russell’s other film from the 1960s, Dante’s Inferno: The Private Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter, released in 1967 and once again with Reed at its heart. The genesis of this Rossetti film can be seen in The Debussy Film, in a scene filmed at Tate Britain explaining the influence of Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist poetry and painting — both from England and France — on Debussy’s music (clip below).

Russell introduces the lovely La damoiselle élue in this scene by playing it over a medley of Pre-Raphaelite images, from the 1875-9 version of Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel, to Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and The Golden Stairs, Millais’s The Knight Errant and Rossetti’s women of the 1860s. These paintings date from the later stages of Pre-Raphaelitism, after it had merged into the Aesthetic Movement; the famed ideals of art aspiring to the condition of music, which are often seen as fundamental to Aestheticism, were espoused in the writings of Walter Pater in England and Charles Baudelaire in France. Indeed, Debussy even set five of Baudelaire’s poems to music in the late 1880s, at around the same time he composed La damoiselle.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel', 1871-9. Oil on canvas, 111 x 82.7 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel, 1871-9. Oil on canvas, 111 x 82.7 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Fair copy manuscript of 'The Blessed Damozel', copied out by Rossetti and given to Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in 1855. Morgan Library, New York / Rossetti Archive.
Fair copy manuscript of ‘The Blessed Damozel’, copied out by Rossetti and given to Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in 1855. Morgan Library, New York / Rossetti Archive.

I discussed Rossetti’s first painted version of The Blessed Damozel (now in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard), and its relationship to his poem of the same name, in a previous post. It is interesting to consider, then, that Debussy’s La damoiselle élue can be doubly associated with both a painting and a poem, creating a kind of triangular relationship between three works of art by two different artists. According to Caroline Rae, however, Debussy is unlikely to have seen the original Blessed Damozel painting in person (I’m not sure if reproductions of Rossetti’s paintings were in circulation on the Continent at this time).

Debussy probably read a French translation of Rossetti’s ‘Damozel’ in a newly published anthology of English poetry, Poètes modernes d’Angleterre (1883), translated by Gabriel Sarrazin. Using Sarrazin’s text as the libretto, he composed La damoiselle élue from 1887-8; it was published in 1893, and first performed at the Société nationale in Paris in April that year. The opening notes of the piece beautifully evoke Rossetti’s image of the Damozel leaning out on the gold bar of heaven, her eyes deeper than the depth of waters stilled at even, with three lilies in hand and seven stars in her flowing hair ‘yellow like ripe corn.’ With the introduction of rising wind instruments, layered over the strings, comes the suggestion of looking heavenwards and seeing the heavenly lady in her place. The same effect is had when one stands before the painting, placed slightly above eye level like an altarpiece. This is followed by a heavenly chorus of female voices, echoing Rossetti’s lines ‘Her seemed she scarce had been a day / One of God’s choristers,’ as well as the angel attendants surrounding the Damozel in his painting.

Maurice Denis, Frontispiece to the score of Debussy's La damoiselle élue, published 1893.
Maurice Denis, frontispiece to the score of Debussy’s La damoiselle élue, published 1893.

It’s only a shame that Rossetti himself had died in 1883, and so would never have heard the music his art and poetry inspired.

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


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).


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


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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).

Virginia Woolf and the Victorian Art World

When I recently visited the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, I was delighted to discover several gorgeous photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron displayed in the first room. Here was a connection between one of my favourite writers and my favourite photographer; I had previously been aware of Woolf’s familial ties to Cameron, but seeing the latter’s beautiful photographic portraits of Victorian cultural greats displayed alongside images of the former really brought it home. Woolf is often described as boldly departing from Victorian traditions, a leading light of literary Modernism — this is certainly true of her writing, with works such as To the Lighthouse (1927), Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Jacob’s Room (1922; my personal favourite) taking the English novel in far more experimental directions. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Julia Cameron in the NPG exhibition got me thinking about Woolf’s ancestry and artistic background.

Julia Margaret Cameron, 'Julia Prinsep Duckworth (later Julia Stephen)', April 1867. Julia Stephen was Virginia Woolf's mother. Source.
Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘Julia Prinsep Duckworth (later Julia Stephen)’, April 1867. Julia Stephen was Virginia Woolf’s mother. Source.
Julia Margaret Cameron, 'My niece Julia full face', April 1867
Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘My niece Julia full face’, April 1867. Source.

Although she was a key member of the progressive Bloomsbury Group, which sought to shake off the restrictive social mores of the previous century and their parents’ generation, Virginia Woolf’s heritage was deeply Victorian. Her mother, Julia Stephen (née Jackson, formerly Mrs Duckworth from her first marriage), was famed for her beauty, a former model for Edward Burne-Jones and George Frederic Watts who was also photographed extensively by her aunt Julia Cameron (above). Meanwhile Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, was an eminent Victorian author and critic, the editor of twenty-six volumes of The Dictionary of National Biography and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery; he was also photographed by Cameron and painted by Watts (below). They were two impressive, imposing figures in Virginia’s early life, exerting a powerful influence upon her long after their deaths — she famously wrote To the Lighthouse as a kind of elegy to them and her childhood memories of summer holidays in St Ives.

George Frederic Watts, 'Sir Leslie Stephen', 1878
George Frederic Watts, ‘Sir Leslie Stephen’, 1878. Virginia Woolf’s father. Source.

Virginia grew up surrounded by her great-aunt Julia Cameron’s photographs and hearing anecdotes from Julia Stephen about the bohemian artistic circle at Little Holland House of which her mother had once been a part. The house was frequented by G. F. Watts, John Ruskin, Tennyson, Burne-Jones and Robert Browning among others, and although Woolf never visited it (it was demolished in 1875, seven years before her birth) she appears, according to Frances Spalding, to have been ‘haunted’ by the house and its associates. In 1923 she wrote her first and only play, Freshwater, a frivolous parody centred around G. F. Watts’s rather disastrous marriage to the actress Ellen Terry, who was thirty years his junior. Julia Margaret Cameron also features prominently, as the play is set in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight where Cameron (and also Tennyson) lived and worked. On the one hand this burlesque was Woolf poking fun at her Victorian heritage, turning it into a farce; on the other hand, the fact she chose the Little Holland House set as a subject matter reveals her preoccupation with the past, and the play’s sometimes very obscure references to specific Victorian painters indicates a familiarity with their history. The parodic tone is affectionate rather than vitriolic, and it was only performed once, in the art studio of Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell.

View of Little Holland House, before 1875. The house was the home of George Frederic Watts and Thoby and Sarah Prinsep.
View of Little Holland House, before 1875. The home of George Frederic Watts and Thoby and Sarah Prinsep. Sarah, who was Julia Stephen’s aunt along with Julia Margaret Cameron, hosted the artistic scene at the house, which included Tennyson, Burne-Jones and Ruskin. Source.

Three years later in 1926, the Hogarth Press, which was set up by Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf, published Julia Margaret Cameron: Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women. Virginia contributed an introductory essay, as did Roger Fry, an influential Bloomsbury Group artist and art critic, and these were followed in the book by a series of plates illustrating Cameron’s portraits and costumed tableaux. It is interesting to consider this publication of Victoriana alongside the Press’s more famous Modernist productions, which included T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude and, of course, Woolf’s own short stories and novels. Woolf gave an inscribed copy of this book to the French photographer Gisèle Freund when she came to photograph Woolf’s portrait in June 1939; it appears Virginia was proud to have a famed photographer, one of the most accomplished and original in the history of the medium, as part of her own ancestry. (As a side note, Virginia’s mother had also written the entry for Cameron in The Dictionary of National Biography, speaking from ‘personal knowledge’.)

'Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron', published by the Hogarth Press in 1926.
‘Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron’, published by the Hogarth Press in 1926. Source.

There are many more connections between Woolf and the Victorian art world which I am yet to pick up on. The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition provides a fascinating introduction to Virginia’s nineteenth-century heritage, and also explores the close relationship between writing and painting in her work. Vanessa, Virginia’s sister, was a painter influenced by more modern, experimental methods of painting which distinguishes her paintings from the likes of Watts, Burne-Jones and Rossetti. In fact, when she and Virginia went to see the Watts memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in January 1905 they became disillusioned by what they saw through maturer eyes, with Virginia writing: ‘The Watts show is atrocious; my last illusion is gone. Nessa and I walked through the rooms almost in tears. Some of his work — indeed most of it — is quite childlike.’ This indicates that the revered, magic world of the Victorians — revered and made magical by tales from their mother — was suddenly losing its charm. And yet, in spite of this, when Vanessa moved from the Stephen family home at Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, and into 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, she chose to hang Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of great Victorians and portraits of her mother in the entrance hall. The relationship between the Victorians and the ‘Bloomsberries’ remains ever complex.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 26 October 2014.

George Charles Beresford, 'Virginia Woolf', July 1902. Source.
George Charles Beresford, ‘Virginia Woolf’, July 1902. Source. Beresford’s portraits of Woolf capture the beauty she inherited from her mother, and have become fixed in the popular imagination.


Further Information

  • Much of the information in this post was found in the excellent exhibition catalogue of the NPG exhibition, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision by Frances Spalding. Listen to a talk on the exhibition with Alexa Wilding and Frances Spalding on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking here (play begins at the relevant point in the programme).
  • A generous selection of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs can be viewed in high-resolution on the Google Art Project.

Rossetti’s Raven

There is some sense of kinship between Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Poe famously asserted that ‘the death […] of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world’, which brings to mind all those Pre-Raphaelite images of doomed Ladies of Shalott and, in real life, the death of Elizabeth Siddal which haunted Rossetti for the rest of his life. There can be no doubt that Rossetti was in some way influenced or affected by Poe’s writing: he actually produced a few illustrations of, and wrote a poetic response to, Poe’s most famous poem, ‘The Raven’. These are among Rossetti’s earliest works as an artist which even predate the founding of the Brotherhood in 1848.

‘The Raven’ was first published in 1845; only a year later, Rossetti drew a frantic pen-and-ink illustration of the poem’s narrator plagued by cavorting spirits and skeletal spectres, his beloved ‘lost Lenore’ looming gigantically behind him (below). J. B. Bullen recognises in this drawing the visual influence of a German draughtsman, Alfred Rethel, whom Rossetti apparently admired. There is also a possible trace of Henry Fuseli’s phantasmagoric paintings in the many strange little sprites leaping at the narrator’s feet, and in the sinuous quality of the lady Lenore.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Angel Footfalls', illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Angel Footfalls’, illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
Henry Fuseli, 'Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen', c. 1788
Henry Fuseli, ‘Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen’, c. 1788

Over the next two years three more drawings followed, less tumultuous and nightmarish in tone and in an angular style which is more recognisably Rossetti’s.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Angel Footfalls', illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Angel Footfalls’, illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Angel Footfalls', illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, 1847
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Angel Footfalls’, illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, 1847
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Angel Footfalls', illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, 1848
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Angel Footfalls’, illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, 1848

Despite the differences in style, however, the four drawings depict the same supernatural moment in the poem (the Rossetti Archive titles all of them ‘Angel Footfalls’), feature the same long-haired male figure, and share the same general composition of figures grouped around a table and a single lamp providing the only light source, with the Raven perched on the bust of Pallas Athena over the door in the top left-hand corner. Rossetti creates the illusion of a procession of angels materialising forward out of the air by retreating from detailed faces and hair in the foreground to faint, wispy outlines in the background. Interesting contrasts between the drawings emerge upon closer inspection: in the two earlier drawings the male narrator is fraught with anxiety, grasping his head in his hands in a gesture of mad, psychological fear; in the two later images he is far more composed, oddly accepting of his supernatural guests and, in the 1847 drawing, even willing to confront the apparition of Lenore face-to-face. Rossetti also appears to have been experimenting with different manners of portraying supernatural figures, moving from the grotesque, frenetic, Fuseli-esque phantoms of the first drawings, to the slender, angular medieval forms of the angels in the next two drawings, to the oddly childlike, frail phantoms of the 1848 drawing. This is a decidedly Gothic, supernatural brand of Pre-Raphaelitism which is rather at odds with the PRB’s creed of ‘truth to nature’, but it was a genre to which Rossetti returned in his images of doppelgängers.

These drawings by Rossetti predate the far more famous illustrations of Poe’s poem by John Tenniel and Gustave Doré. Doré’s engravings, published in 1884, are similar in some respects to Rossetti’s sketches, particularly when portraying the narrator surrounded by angels and spirits (see below). However, Doré’s images are far more refined and not as angular and archaic as Rossetti’s. It is highly unlikely, probably impossible, that Doré ever saw Rossetti’s drawings (which were never published), but it is worth comparing how these nineteenth-century artists from different countries visually interpreted Poe’s ‘The Raven’, clearly sharing an interest in portraying angels and phantoms. That Rossetti never refined or published his sketches indicates that he created them for his own private world of fantasy, already romanticising the ideals of love, death and the heavenly woman which he also found in the poetry of Dante Alighieri.

Gustave Doré, Illustration of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe, published 1884
Gustave Doré, Illustration of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, published 1884

Rossetti’s poetic response to Poe, which also led to a painting, was well-known in his lifetime. ‘The Blessed Damozel’, which the Rossetti Archive calls Rossetti’s ‘single most important literary work’, was first written in 1846-47 and went through several extensive revisions from 1850-1881. Rossetti continued to return to the poem and its subject matter throughout his artistic career, and eventually began work on a large oil painting as a visual commentary and elaboration upon it from 1871-78 (see below). The poem and painting are so central to Rossetti’s oeuvre that they deserve a separate post all to themselves, but it’s worth noting here the inspiration of ‘The Raven’ on the budding, pre-Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter. In Poe’s poem the narrator madly mourns his dead lover, the ‘rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore’; by contrast, Rossetti’s ‘The Blessed Damozel’ shifts the focus up to heaven, where the angelic maiden ‘lean[s] out / From the gold bar of Heaven’ and looks down to her lover on earth from Paradise. This time it is the woman who fantasises, in a state of patient, expectant sorrow, of the day she will ‘lie i’ the shadow of / That living mystic tree’ in heaven with her lover — she awaits his death, ‘when round his head the aureole [will] cling’ (an interesting use of the word ‘cling’, suggesting a steadfast bond, clinging like her memories), and the day they will be reunited. Much more can be said of the associations and contrasts between Poe and Rossetti, but I have at least shown that one of Rossetti’s most famous poems and paintings can be traced back to a work by an American Gothic writer.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blessed Damozel', 1875-78
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Blessed Damozel’, 1871-78. Rossetti painted a reduced replica from 1875-78.


Further information

The Pre-Raphaelites and the Northern Renaissance

The very name of the Pre-Raphaelites, by referencing Raphael, evokes Italy and, of course, harkens back to art before the High Renaissance and Raphael’s followers. Much has been written about the Italian artists of the early Renaissance and late-medieval periods who inspired the Pre-Raphaelites — Botticelli and Fra Angelico were named specifically on the Brotherhood’s ‘List of Immortals’ — and there was an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in 2010 titled The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy which explored their connection and fixation with the country. But what about the Northern Renaissance and the artists of fifteenth-and-sixteenth-century Germany, France, the Netherlands and even Britain, and did they exert an influence on Pre-Raphaelite art? There is much evidence to suggest this is so, and this post is only the proverbial tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The aforementioned ‘List of Immortals’, which was drawn up at one of the Brotherhood’s first meetings in 1848, is awash with Italian painters and poets; interestingly, the list contradicts the comfortable definition of Pre-Raphaelitism by including High Renaissance and Post-Raphaelite artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian and Tintoretto. Even the Greek sculptor Pheidias gets a mention, further refuting the popular conception that the Pre-Raphaelites had no interest in the classical art exalted at the Royal Academy. However, amidst all these Italian figures there isn’t a single Northern Renaissance artist to be found. ‘Northern Renaissance’ is a blanket term which refers to the European countries outside (and therefore north of) Italy, that locus from which Renaissance thinking radiated all across the continent. Generally speaking (and prepare for some sweeping generalisations just to summarise) these northern countries remained in the shadow of the Middle Ages for much longer than Italy, and the prevailing style was medieval and Gothic as opposed to Italy’s revived classicism. There is a definite difference in styles: compare, for example, the Flemish Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross from 1435 with Raphael’s treatment of the same Biblical event (both below). The figures in the Van der Weyden are angular, stiff and unidealised, cramped into a very shallow space with Gothic architectural elements; Raphael, meanwhile, employs the classical, idealised bodily proportions and atmospheric, linear perspective typical of the High Italian Renaissance. The moods of the two paintings are also very different: Van der Weyden’s is quiet, melancholy and funereal — the figures weep actual tears — whereas Raphael opts for melodrama and dynamism, with a milder sense of sorrow in comparison. The faces in Van der Weyden’s painting are not like Raphael’s classical ‘types’; they could easily be individual portraits of actual people, painted from life rather than derived from antique statuary.

Rogier van der Weyden, 'The Deposition (The Descent from the Cross)', c. 1435
Rogier van der Weyden, ‘The Deposition (The Descent from the Cross)’, c. 1435
Raphael, 'The Deposition', 1507
Raphael, ‘The Deposition’, 1507

Already I hope you can see certain similar qualities between these ‘northern’ paintings and Pre-Raphaelite art. The level of detail in Van der Weyden’s Deposition is astonishingly microscopic, with every tear, every fine strand of hair and, along the bottom, every plant, painted with a minute exactitude (click the image above for a closer look). Furthermore, the colours are richer than Raphael’s earthy tones, surely matching the Pre-Raphaelites’ love of vivid, bright colour palettes painted on a white ground. There is an air perhaps of naturalistic realism to Van der Weyden’s painting, and ‘truth to nature’ was of course a fundamental Pre-Raphaelite principal. A Northern Renaissance artist who has a particular relevance, and to whom the Pre-Raphaelites were compared by some Victorian observers, is Albrecht Dürer. Dürer’s watercolour sketches of natural details in his sketchbooks, unusual for their time, are undoubtedly comparable to the close observations of nature in drawings and watercolours by John and Rosa Brett, John Ruskin and Frederick Sandys, among others. Here, instead of widening their gaze to an entire landscape, both Dürer and John Brett (below) focus in like human microscopes on a small, seemingly insignificant element of the landscape and render it with equal precision. As is frequently stated, in the Pre-Raphaelites’ case they were following the tenets of Ruskin and that familiar statement which Pre-Raphaelite fans know so well:

Go to Nature with all singleness of heart and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, scorning nothing.

Nature should be followed and copied exactly and authentically, not idealised and prettified — an artist should be selective, but should paint or sketch every leaf, every petal, just as Dürer did. Although, as some have remarked, Dürer’s watercolours might have been an attempt to subtly perfect nature, and that he might actually have been very selective about what he chose to paint and what he omitted from his composition.

Albrecht Dürer, 'The Large Piece of Turf', 1503
Albrecht Dürer, ‘The Large Piece of Turf’, 1503
John Brett, 'Gentian', 1862
John Brett, ‘Gentian’, 1862

This Pre-Raphaelite interest or awareness of Dürer also carries over into drawing and printmaking. When I first visited Kelmscott Manor, I was pleasantly surprised to discover several of Dürer’s gorgeous Apocalypse woodcut prints hanging in the upstairs rooms — it turns out that William Morris was an avid Dürer fan and had collected his prints at some point. I got the impression that, for Morris and his medievalist friends, Dürer signified something else besides truth to nature: his woodcuts and engravings evoked the medieval past and the strange, Gothic imagination of the Middle Ages; their archaic oddness and dark, craggy, arboreal settings probably felt closer to home, to England, than the sultry, Arcadian, remote vistas of Italian painting. Edward Burne-Jones shows an awareness of Dürer’s prints during his Oxford days in his exquisite pen-and-ink drawing from 1858, The Knight’s Farewell. After first meeting Burne-Jones in Oxford at this time, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to William Bell Scott: ‘Jones’s designs are marvels of finish & imaginative detail, unequalled by anything except perhaps Albrecht Dürer.’ The fine, silvery quality of Burne-Jones’s drawing matches the detailed tones of Dürer’s etchings, engravings and drypoints (such as St Eustace, below).

Edward Burne-Jones, 'The Knight's Farewell', 1858
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Knight’s Farewell’, 1858
Albrecht Dürer, 'St Eustace', c. 1500
Albrecht Dürer, ‘St Eustace’, engraving, c. 1500

Colin Cruise also notes that the prints of Frederick Sandys were admired by fellow Victorians for their continuation of Dürer’s style. Joseph Pennell, another nineteenth-century printmaker, considered Sandys ‘in imaginative power, the greatest of all…in technique he is the legitimate successor of Dürer’, and that ‘in every one [of Sandys’s designs] is seen the hand of the man able to carry on the tradition of Dürer, and yet bring it into line with modern methods’. The shading and texture of, for example, Sandys’s The Little Mourner (below) does indeed suggest the influence of Dürer, particularly also the cold, mournful setting.

Frederick Sandys, 'The Little Mourner', engraved by the Dalziel Brothers, published 1862
Frederick Sandys, ‘The Little Mourner’, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers, published 1862

Another Northern artist whose work the Pre-Raphaelites would certainly have been familiar with is Jan van Eyck, whose famous Arnolfini Portrait entered the collection of the National Gallery in 1842. In 1849, too, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt visited the Louvre in Paris, where they would undoubtedly have seen Van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1435; below) with its gorgeous, jewel-like colours and high levels of detail.

Jan van Eyck, 'Madonna of Chancellor Rolin', 1435
Jan van Eyck, ‘Madonna of Chancellor Rolin’, 1435

I’ve also always thought that there’s something of the melancholy, flowing-haired Pre-Raphaelite woman in Jan van Eyck’s portrayals of Virgins and angels in opulent, bejewelled settings, particularly in the meticulousness with which Van Eyck renders their soft, waving aureoles of hair. However, it’s probably very tenuous to compare the Virgin Mary from Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece with Rossetti’s Fair Rosamund!

Jan van Eyck, 'The Ghent Altarpiece' (detail of centre panel: the Virgin Mary), completed 1432
Jan van Eyck, ‘The Ghent Altarpiece’ (detail of centre panel: the Virgin Mary), completed 1432
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Fair Rosamund', 1861
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Fair Rosamund’, 1861

I had hoped to write a blog which succinctly summarises the Pre-Raphaelite connections with the Northern Renaissance, but in truth I’ve only scratched the surface. There are surprisingly few studies of the subject in PRB scholarship, and it becomes apparent that a full survey of it is needed. Something for the future, maybe?


Further information