Painting the Flock: Pre-Raphaelite Livestock

I spent the first 8 years of my life on and around the family farm in south Shropshire, near the town of Ludlow where I was born—the same rural landscape described so evocatively in A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (‘From Clee to heaven the beacon burns, / The shires have seen it plain, / From north and south the sign returns, / And beacons burn again’). Although we moved away from the farm in 2001 to go and live down in Cornwall, my memories of those early years are still very vivid: the land changing with the seasons; racing across open fields with my dad on his quad bike; the shimmering summer heat in the hay fields; the bloody massacre of a fox in a chicken coop; the dim, distinctive hush of the big barn, smelling earthily of hay and animal feed. Our livestock chiefly consisted of cattle and sheep, and I still remember the times I could sit with a warm, newborn lamb in my lap to feed with the milk-bottle.

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

So perhaps I have been more conditioned than other viewers to notice the surprisingly frequent appearances of livestock—particularly sheep—in Pre-Raphaelite painting. The first that springs to mind is, of course, Hunt’s Our English Coasts, 1852, with its alternative title of Strayed Sheep (below). When I first showed this painting to my dad, an ex-sheep-farmer, he was (luckily!) impressed, though reproductions don’t do justice to the vibrant, singing colours of the original now hanging in Tate Britain. Hunt, as a kind of artist-shepherd, deploys his sheep for blatantly symbolic purposes. The idea of a straying flock representing the precarious state of the nation, when anxieties about England’s south coasts being vulnerable to Napoleon III’s invading fleets were heightened in the public consciousness, can still easily be grasped by modern viewers. Interestingly—though don’t quote me on this, and I may have to ask my dad!—this particular flock is comprised of a number of different breeds perched all together on the cliffside, which would reflect the diversity of the British population. I’m reminded of Bathsheba Everdene’s (very accurate) lamentation in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd:

Sheep are such unfortunate animals!—there’s always something happening to them! I never knew a flock pass a year without getting into some scrape or other.

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

The symbolism of the flock in Our English Coasts, then, is decidedly secular, in that it refers to the socio-political climate of its day (hence the specific date of 1852 included in the title). But Hunt also recognised the religious and moral potential of a flock of wayward sheep. In the same period as English Coasts he painted The Hireling Shepherd (below); another icon of High-Pre-Raphaelitism, with its minute, meticulous realism and dense arrangement of symbols—including a death’s-head hawkmoth, unripe apples and a lamb enfolded in a blood-red cloth. (No doubt the flowers in the foreground carry their own Victorian meanings too.) On the one hand, it is a somewhat questionable portrayal of the rural working class, which apparently can only descend into indolence and—most shocking!—wanton sexuality.

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

The title itself refers to the Book of John, Chapter 10, which tells the parable of the Good Shepherd:

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth. […] The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.

With this in mind the painting’s ‘message’ becomes clearer, pointing to the fatal consequences of letting one’s (metaphorical) flock stray into (metaphorical) unknown pastures. According to Tim Barringer, Hunt intended the painting as ‘a commentary on a contemporary controversy concerning Anglican pastors neglecting their worshipping flocks, on which [John] Ruskin had published a tract.’ The result is chaos among the sheep: two rams are locking horns (not a pleasant sight, if anyone has ever seen rams fighting); some have slumped tiredly to the ground; others, probably out of starvation, have noticed the tempting golden cornfield behind the backs of their careless, lusty guardian and his sweetheart. Readers of Far from the Madding Crowd will also recall the dangers of sheep eating clover when left to their own devices, leading to bloat—but Hunt’s shepherd is no Gabriel Oak! One scholar has said it is fatal for lambs to eat unripe apples, though I’m not sure if this is true.

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

Hunt was not the only Pre-Raphaelite Brother to utilise the symbolism of the flock. Millais’s controversial masterpiece of 1849-50, Christ in the House of His Parents (below), features rows of sheep crowding expectantly behind a fence in the left-background, as if to watch the foreshadowing of the Crucifixion happening inside the house. Millais, always striving for truth to nature, famously used heads bought from a butcher to paint these rams and ewes. In this instance the sheep can be interpreted as a congregation of churchgoers; interestingly, Alistair Grieve has proposed that the layout of the carpenter’s shop explicitly echoes that of a church chancel or presbytery, with the viewer looking westwards from the east end.

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

A study for the painting demonstrates that the sheep were included early on, and Millais retained them even after removing other compositional elements around the edges (the window and flower box on the left, the standing figure on the right).

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

Ovis aries are also the subject of Ford Madox Brown’s ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ (below), which was commenced in April 1851 using Brown’s garden at Stockwell and also Clapham Common as a backdrop (the distant seaside was added later, creating an imagined, composite landscape). Despite the eighteenth-century costumes of the figures, the painting does not illustrate any specific literary or historical subject and it is safe to assume that the sheep, in this instance, are there simply because they are.

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

The idyllic, languid innocence of the scene is best expressed in the lamb lounging flat on the grass on the far right—there are no encroaching dangers, no worm-in-the-bud undertones as in The Hireling Shepherd. As various scholars have noted, Brown was much more interested in trying to capture, as accurately as possible, the effects of bright, full, overhead sunlight on the English landscape and the human figure; scarcely any portion of the picture is in shadow, and in the hot light the mother and her baby become statuesque forms against an unusually low horizon. The colours of white fleece against green grass are particularly lovely. Brown’s plein air method of painting had a considerable influence on Hunt and Millais when they began to paint The Hireling Shepherd and Ophelia respectively, while the unusual perspective of ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ may have contributed to the jarring, lopsided composition of Hunt’s English Coasts.

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

From these paintings it is possible to see the humble sheep as a kind of quintessentially English animal, embedded in the rural landscape and variously neglected and petted by humans. Pre-Raphaelite painters could cast their flocks in a surprising number of symbolic or metaphorical roles, ranging from Victorian anxieties of a French invasion to more moral and Biblical messages.

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Pre-Raphaelites at the Fogg Museum, Harvard University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Further information

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

‘Tractarian Tendencies’: The Pre-Raphaelites and Anglo-Catholicism

Another aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism which has recently fascinated me is its links with the Tractarians, the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism. Whilst I am by no means an expert in theology, and am rather murky in my religious beliefs, I am still deeply fascinated by the mystique of churches, cathedrals and ritualism. I have often got the impression that there is a certain dreamy mysticism surrounding Anglo-Catholic practice which rather appeals, even if I do not necessarily believe staunchly in its doctrines. Note that my explanation of the Pre-Raphaelite associations with Anglo-Catholicism barely scratches the surface of what is potentially a whole dissertation’s worth of research and speculation!

I shall attempt to explain the origins of Anglo-Catholicism as succinctly as possible (and feel I should apologise to any practising Anglo-Catholics readers if there are errors in my explanations!). Anglo-Catholicism itself is still technically part of the Church of England, despite its close links with the ‘Romish’ branch of Christianity, and its followers were criticised for sympathising with Roman Catholicism, rather than for actually being Catholic. In Oxford in the 1830s a group of Anglican academics and clergymen became increasingly unhappy with the Church of England’s lack of appreciation for its pre-Reformation, medieval, Catholic heritage. One of their primary aims was to reintroduce elements of Catholic church ritual into Anglican services, reviving the use of incense, bells, Latin hymns, elaborate vestments and gilded altar furniture in ‘bells and smells’ fashion. They also gave a supremacy, as in Catholicism, to the receiving of the Sacrament as a necessity in church services. Notable figureheads of this ‘Oxford Movement’ included John Henry Newman (painted in a portrait by Millais, below), Edward Bouverie Pusey and John Keble, after whom Keble College, the Oxford University college established in the Gothic Revival style in 1870, is named. From 1833 to 1841 they published a series of Tracts for the Times expounding their revivalist ideals, hence their being labelled ‘Tractarians’. It is worth noting that Tractarians were perceived as deeply nostalgic for the Middle Ages, a time when Catholicism was the ruling denomination and an age which produced religious buildings and objects of great beauty. Of course, all this medievalism sounds very familiar when one remembers the Pre-Raphaelites, and the notion of a ‘brotherhood’ of men dissatisfied with the establishment and banding together to reform it has echoes in the founding principles of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Perhaps the Oxford Movement’s emphasis on the beautiful, sensual elements of worship, with a focus on sounds, scents and ornamentation, could even be regarded as anticipating the Aesthetic Movement. It is also worth remembering, too, that some of the Movement’s leaders, particularly Newman and Keble, were poets as well as priests: the Bible was viewed poetically (think of the poetry of the King James Version), and faith could be expressed divinely through verse.

John Everett Millais, 'Portrait of John Henry Newman', 1881
John Everett Millais, ‘Portrait of John Henry Newman’, 1881. Newman actually converted to Catholicism in 1847, hence the red cardinal’s robes.

The early work produced by the Brotherhood caused some concern amongst contemporary observers for displaying Catholic and/or Tractarian tendencies and sympathies. A number of important early works are religiously themed: Christ in the House of His Parents by Millais (1849-50), the elaborately-titled A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (1850) by Holman Hunt, and The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849-50) by Dante Rossetti, are all notable examples. Much has been written of the hostile reception Millais’s painting received when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy; even Charles Dickens, famous as a realist, scathingly criticised the picture’s ‘loathsome minuteness’ being too close to truth! It was the undisputed norm for the Holy Family to be portrayed idealistically, yet Millais paints them in minute detail, ‘warts and all’, and, scandalously at the time, gives the young Christ red hair. Perhaps these critics also took against the painting’s rich religious (and thus, for them, specifically Catholic or High Church) symbolism. Indeed, Alastair Grieve theorises that the composition of Millais’s painting mirrors or suggests the layout of a church and specifically references High Church practices: the workshop bench is the altar at the east end of the church, and the back wall is a kind of rood screen (favoured by Tractarians) separating the priests and the altar from the congregation, the literal ‘flock’ of sheep. Anglo-Catholicism’s deep concern with the importance of the Sacrament is possibly represented by the ‘blood of Christ’ on his little open palm at the exact centre of the canvas (also foreshadowing the Crucifixion). Certainly an interesting theory!

John Everett Millais, 'Christ in the House of His Parents', 1849-50
John Everett Millais, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, 1849-50
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin', 1848-49
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’, 1848-49

The Brotherhood’s lifestyle and behaviour was also problematic for some contemporaries. Their decision to label themselves a ‘Brotherhood’, which initially signals monks rather than painters, and the presence of an Italian surname among its members — Rossetti — aroused suspicion. It probably didn’t help that Rossetti dubbed himself an ‘Art-Catholic’ in his pre-Pre-Raphaelite days and wrote a series of religious-themed poems such as ‘Ave’, ‘My Sister’s Sleep’ and the Latin-titled hymn ‘Mater Pulchrae Delectionis’, which he planned to publish in a volume entitled Songs of the Art Catholic in 1847. In my opinion, however, the young Rossetti’s attraction to Catholicism and High Anglicanism was purely aesthetic and did not arise from any sincere faith — in later years he never subscribed to any religious dogma and even attempted to go back and erase his Art-Catholicism from his poetry, presumably out of embarrassment. Still, it is undeniable that his first major oil painting, his first significant Pre-Raphaelite work, is distinctly Catholic (or perhaps faux-Catholic) in feel, with its unusual focus on Mary before the Annunciation (above). As with many of Rossetti’s paintings it is paired with one of his poems: two sonnets titled ‘Mary’s Girlhood (For a Picture)‘ inscribed on the frame itself which explain the picture’s web of symbols to the viewer — the lilies, the books, the cross-shaped trellis, the red cloth Mary embroiders, among others. Rossetti’s sister Christina, who was herself closely involved with her local Anglo-Catholic church in London and wrote a great deal of devotional poetry and prose, modelled for Mary in both The Girlhood and its sequel Ecce Ancilla Domini! (below), Dante recolouring her hair from brown to auburn. Because of all this, Dante Rossetti was suspected of ‘Mariolatry’, an excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Ecce Ancilla Domini!' (The Annunciation), 1849-50
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini!’ (The Annunciation), 1849-50

Critics of the Brotherhood’s ‘monkish follies’ were also concerned that it hinted at unmanliness. Certainly, Tractarianism/Anglo-Catholicism’s concentration on aesthetic beauty and the more theatrical elements of liturgy would have indicated a kind of effeminacy in its practitioners which contrasted with so-called ‘Muscular Christianity’, a movement which promoted good health and a strong body to reflect good morals and a strong faith. The use of bells, incense, flowers and golden garments, as well as the PRB styling themselves on the intensely cloistered, all-male world of Catholic monasteries, would likely have been viewed with suspicion by the Victorian public, and at some point the sexuality of male Tractarian sympathisers was called into question. Perhaps it is not surprising that a number of important figures in the Aesthetic Movement, most notably Oscar Wilde and John Gray (the inspiration for Dorian Gray) actually converted to Catholicism in later life. Simeon Solomon (to whom I intend to devote a separate post), a Pre-Raphaelite associate persecuted for his homosexuality, portrayed church ritualism in paintings such as Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost, which includes a thurible, lilies, candles and rich vestments. It also, I believe, allows the viewer to admire the handsome and delicate beauty of the two acolytes; the longer-haired man on the left is probably English, while his companion has a more Italian look.

Anglo-Catholicism is still practiced today in many churches throughout England and has even spread internationally, though I often wonder — perhaps unfairly — whether or not its ornate, semi-Catholic aura is still met with the same distrust and confusion as it was in the nineteenth century. I feel it would be a shame, if so.

Simeon Solomon, 'Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost', 1863
Simeon Solomon, ‘Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost’, 1863

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Further information

  • Convent Thoughts, painted by Charles Allston Collins (not an original member of the Brotherhood, but very closely associated) in 1851, is another example of early Pre-Raphaelite religiosity. Its convent setting, Christian symbolism and ornate gold frame decorated with carved lilies and inscribed with the Latin ‘Sicut Lilium’ (‘As the lily among thorns’), led to accusations of Roman Catholic sympathies. It is also breathtakingly detailed, much in the manner of Millais’s meticulous realism, and well worth seeing in situ at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
  • Rossetti Archive entry for another Mary-themed painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mary in the House of St. John, which was originally planned to form a triptych with Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini!
  • Rossetti’s unsuccessful publishing project Songs of the Art Catholic in the Rossetti Archive. Links to texts of the poems can also be found here.
  • Video commentary on Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents by the wonderful Smarthistory.
  • Video about Keble College, Oxford, which was a monument to the Gothic Revival and a product of the Oxford Movement.