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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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