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Secretive rebellion

Maggie Armstrong reviews Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite show 

It always seemed a babyish cause for a rebellion. The belief that at one point in the High Renaissance things got just a bit too masterful, too technically perfect, too exhaustively ideal. All because one young artist, who painted luminously tender Madonnas and Childs before he was robbed of life age 37, had taken things too far. Everyone had started to copy him, and Renaissance truth had given way to drab, symmetrical Mannerism. Even the critic John Ruskin accused Raphael of creating “spurious beauty”. What a fraud that Raphael was!

But 1848 was the year ‘The Communist Manifesto’ went on the shelves, with a spring of revolutions happening in Europe. Chartists were demonstrating in London. John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt (their names are as arduous as their brushstrokes) were only 19, 20 and 21; edgy and bored, blowing smoke rings and drinking coffee in Millais’s parents’ house when they formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. And they said they were anti-Raphael‘ites’ not anti-Raphael. They admired Raphael’s daring, but quite rightly they objected to the ‘ites’ of the London art establishment who slavishly mimicked the Great Masters. They called their professor at the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Sloshua Reynolds, but that’s the only joke they made.

The PRB wanted to get back to nature. A few flimsy doctrines were outlined in The Germ, their magazine that died a natural death after four issues in 1850. Aims included having “genuine” ideas to express, studying “Nature” attentively and sympathising with what is “direct and serious and heartfelt” in previous art. They held secret meetings and signed their works with a secretive “PRB”, secretly and cleverly all a publicity stunt. Their bold and colourful realism annoyed the Academy and they achieved their main aim of being hated (though soon everyone was copying them). It is this side, their rebelliousness, that the winter exhibition at the Tate Britain wants to get across.

It’s subtitled “Victorian avant garde” and the curators refer to Pre-Raphaelitism as “Britain’s first modern art movement”. This is nonsense. It may have been a self-conscious movement but it was not modern. About 200 works spanning 50 years, including oils, lithographs, photographs, sculptures, tapestries and wallpapers are medieval and classical and are, in short, about girls. The collection is one big, blooded male fantasy, a kaleidoscope of female wretchedness, nerves and death. Girls flail and swoon about, got up as ladies, goddesses, wenches, nymphs, milkmaids, biblical temptresses, Shakespearean swains. Victoria reigns and patriarchy is in full play. But some of these paintings are almost edible in their beauty.

In Arthur Hughes’s April Love a forlorn sweetheart with strawberry-red hair stands, head bowed, in an electric violet dress, framed by bark and ivy. She has milk-bottle arms, droopy unfocused eyes and a face like a death mask. There seems to be a dejected lover behind her but he’s not really the point. Nor is she. This is a doctrinal study of the ivy leaf, yet nature has never looked so unnatural, with each leaf too precious and pluckable. There’s nothing modern about this painting but it doesn’t make it less exquisite.

More arcane woe follows in William Shakespeare Burton’s Civil War tableau The Wounded Cavalier. It’s like Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe only everybody has their clothes on. A mysterious love-triangle is pictured in a bleak woodland, dripping with spidery fern leaves and moss. A dying cavalier lies in the arms of a pallid girl while her husband waits oppressively in the trees. The girl has those sleepy eyes but hers are sultry, bringing to mind Hardy’s Tess D’Urberville in the rape scene (which came 50 years later); the eyes of a girl both wronged and wronging.

Beauty gets thick in works like Millais’s Mariana and Rossetti’s Lady Lilith. Both figure monstrous red-haired women who look disturbingly like Naomi Wolf or Cathleen Ní Houlihan. Lady Lilith was the mythical first wife of Adam and here she is waiting for him, gazing into a mirror, brushing her auburn curls and showing a bit of smooth, voluptuous shoulder. This is biscuit-tin Pre-Raphaelite, all rosebuds, candlesticks, pearly gossamer and fetishised sadness.

Hunt’s Lady of Shalott is possibly attempting feminism. In Tennyson’s poem the lady weaves a web in a tower. She is not allowed to look down at Camelot though she watches through a mirror until Sir Lancelot appears and she is cursed. This is full-length, barefoot woman, stitching wildly amid Oriental pinks, golds, blues. But why didn’t they show Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott instead, a much finer celebration of abject love, in which m’lady floats down the river to find Sir Lancelot, before dying? Pre-Raphaelite girls look better melancholic and moribund, not in movement.


The Pre-Raphaelites painted well but failed in their aims. They failed to represent nature because their work was completed in dark studios, their sexuality was febrile (and they still couldn’t undress women) and their ideas were mixed up. They were troubled by the erosion of the natural world by industrialisation but they embraced technology, exalting photography and “railways, factories, mines, roaring cities, steam vessels” as one Brother wrote in The Germ. Their oeuvre is a performative contradiction.

Death looks vibrant and fashionable in Henry Wallis’s Chatterton about the 17-year old poet who poisoned himself in a Holborn garret. Cromwell looks like a nice man. Ophelia looks very much alive in Millais’s painting, her body buoyed by the water in a gauzy dress, arms invitingly splayed, mouth open and eyes telling Millais what to do. Seventeen-year old Elisabeth Siddal modelled for this in a cold, filled bathtub and came down with pneumonia afterwards, but Millais got his Ophelia, going to a special brook in Surrey to fill in the sickly green botanical details (which are again so naturalistic they become fake).

Siddal’s appearance in many of the paintings reminds us how incestuous the movement got, once the boys let the girls be muses. A copper-haired beauty discovered working in a bonnet shop on Leicester Square, Siddal eventually became Rossetti’s wife but they all shared her (she poisoned herself at 33, and her drawings and poetry show she could have been a great talent. Like Florence Caxton, the feminist illustrator whose drawings you can see here, and like Dante’s sister Christina Rossetti, who explored female cravings or child abduction, either one, in her poem the “Goblin Market” but as you see these are parentheses). Millais stole Ruskin’s wife and William Morris painted his lover Jane in La Belle Iseult, his only known easel painting. “I cannot paint you, but I love you” he wrote. This comes through in the gentle wise features of Iseult. She’s clad in a soft, patterned gown and emerging from a messy bedspread.

The Tate has done a fine Procrustean job of assembling the spoils of a movement which was never cohesive or convincing even if it tried to be in its boyish beginnings. The inner core of the PRB had broken up by 1853 and later Rossetti became a figurehead in the ‘art for art’s sake’ movement. Why didn’t they just say this all along?


Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain until 13th January