Beauty and Rebellion: Pre-Raphaelites in Liverpool

Isabella by John Everett Millais, 1849 (National Museums Liverpool)

I spend a lot of time looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings, in galleries, in exhibitions, online and in books. And every exhibition, like every book, has its own individual approach and shows me something new. It goes without saying, then, that the Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion exhibition at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, curated by Christopher Newall, with its own take on the subject and its own juxtaposition of works, got me thinking. The premise of the exhibition is to situate Liverpool as a centre of Pre-Raphaelite patronage, and as a city which, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was receptive to such ‘rebellious’ art. Much is made of the wealthy Liverpool patrons who bought Pre-Raphaelite paintings, developed collections, and encouraged new painters to be open to the influences of this new school of thought in art. This led to a ‘Liverpool School’ of artists influenced by the PRB, interested in their style, form and narrative approach. This much is demonstrated convincingly, and I encountered some interested works by Liverpool artists whose work I hadn’t seen before. However, having been based in Birmingham for many years, I tend to feel that some of the claims for Liverpool are slightly overstated:

No other provincial town or city was so receptive to this rebellious yet reforming artistic movement. It is a testament to the independence of taste and intellectual freedom in the North West in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The relationship of Birmingham and the Birmingham School to Pre-Raphaelitism aside, the exhibition makes a good case for Liverpool’s claims; from collectors and patrons to indigenous painters, now enshrined in the collections of the Walker and the Lady Lever galleries, Liverpool embraced the movement, even awarding the Liverpool Academy annual prize to Pre-Raphaelite works on several occasions (including Holman Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1857) and Millais’s The Blind Girl (1856) – both of which are now in Birmingham’s collection).

Every painting on display was exhibited in Liverpool at some point during the nineteenth century, which is telling about the Liverpudlian appetite for Pre-Raphaelitism (something which quotations on the wall remind us of at every turn). The first thing you see as you enter is Millais’s striking Isabella (1848-9), which is one of those works that has come to symbolise the early stages of Pre-Raphaelitism. A narrative painting, engaged with literary sources (Keats’s poem, ‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil‘), full of symbolism, it brings a story to life: the uncomfortable dinner scene, with the lovers in the foreground and, in the background, oblivious to the drama about to unfold, a man is draining his drink, looking so prosaically real one can almost hear the resulting belch. Does this realism, I wonder, bringing a narrative to life, do what films do now, making stories appear before us, embodied by the Pre-Raphaelite lens?

Burd Helen by William Lindsay Windus, 1856 (National Museums Liverpool)

I was interested by the paintings of Liverpool artist William Lindsay Windus, such as Burd Helen (1856), based on a Scottish border ballad. The notice tells me that Windus was encouraged by collector John Miller to visit London and see the Pre-Raphaelite works on display; this was the result. Certainly in its narrative origin and its detailed background you can see the influence, though I don’t much like it as a painting, personally. Equally interesting is The Rainbow (1858) by William Davis. Though the PRB liked Davis’s work, Ruskin described this one as ‘an offensive daub’, causing Davis to roll up the edge with the rainbow on, which would probably improve it, as the rest of the painting is much better; I wonder if he retitled it, though. What is particularly interesting about this painting is the effect of the light, though: that effect of bright sunshine through dark clouds following a thunderstorm. In this was it is reminiscent of Holman Hunt’s The Pretty Baa Lambs, with a similarly striking depiction of light. It also recalled for me The Blind Girl, with a rainbow and a similar light effect. James Campbell’s Twilight, Trudging Homeward (1857) with a small, sightless girl being walked home, was apparently likely to be directly inspired by The Blind Girl, which was exhibited in Liverpool the same year.

Laura Freeman, in her scathing and slightly hysterical review of the exhibition in The Spectator (I suspect the exhibition confirmed her existing views of the Pre-Raphaelites) particularly took exception to Holman Hunt’s Little Nell and her Grandfather (1845). In that instance, I’m inclined to agree with her: it seems ‘sloshy’, to use the PRB’s own term, in both form and subject. Of course Little Nell herself is an example of high Victorian sentimentality, and it strikes me that Hunt took an overly-sentimental narrative and overlaid it with even more of the stuff. Apparently he accidentally used salad oil in painting the sky; perhaps that’s the problem. This isn’t the only work here inspired by The Old Curiosity Shop; Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s Kit’s Writing Lesson (1852), despite criticism from W. M. Rossetti that his realism led to too many mistakes, seems less cloying and more appealing.
May Morning on Magdalen Tower by Holman Hunt, 1890 (National Museums Liverpool)

I’m also inclined to agree with Freeman concerning May Morning on Magdalen Tower (Holman Hunt, 1890): there are many things to like here, including the lovely touch of the boy in the middle shading his eyes with his hand from the glare of the rising sun, the feeling of Spring and celebration, and the multi-faceted imagery of faith, but somehow the colours seem garish and wrong to me, the style outworn. There is a smaller, elaborately framed version at BMAG, and I think I prefer it smaller; it’s less…obvious.

Every Pre-Raphaelite show will have its standout pieces, usually very famous ones: here, one of those is Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, which is one of those paintings people often love to hate. I have to say, it’s growing on me. Its narrative is biblical, and not particularly appealing; it’s an uncompromising painting which doesn’t try to seduce the viewer – unlike some of the other blockbusters here, particularly Rossetti’s later works, this isn’t a seductive people-pleaser. The purple hills are so unexpected – in fact all the use of colour here is unexpected – yet effective. The poor goat, faced with the bones of his predecessors, facing death despite his own blamelessness, works on a literal and a metaphorical level.
The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854-6 (National Museums Liverpool)
There are many biblical topics in the paintings here, but some of the most striking, to me, are Dyce’s deceptively simple paintings David in the Wilderness, Man of Sorrows and Garden of Gethsemane. Full of rocks and geological details as Dyce’s paintings always are, these beautiful small paintings are entirely dependent on a knowledge of the source for understanding and appreciation: the wild landscapes in which these men wander reflect the spiritual and emotional turbulence which also makes them widely relevant, reflecting human suffering as well as the situations of particular biblical figures. The paintings also suggest the peace that is to be found in nature, even if they lack drama.
This exhibition does a good job of covering a proportion of the PRB’s literary sources; a Shakespearean painting here is Arthur Hughes’s As You Like It. Actually, I’m disappointed by this: it seems overly complex and contrived, as if the artist simply couldn’t decide what he wanted to depict from the play, so tried to put too much in. Hughes’s other paintings here are less narrative and perhaps more sentimental (such as The Woodsman’s Child) but have a more direct appeal. As You Like It seems to beat around the bush too much.
Study of an Ash Trunk by Albert Joseph Moore, 1857 (Ashmolean Museum)

As an alternative to more traditional hanging, there are a couple of sections here entitled Paintings in a Victorian House, with a range of smaller paintings hung on Morris wallpaper as, presumably, they might have been in the house of a collector such as the banker George Rae. There are no labels here, so one is reliant on a handlist, but it works well in its implication of the intimacy in which these paintings might once have been hung, side by side in a less formal setting. One of these paintings, Study of an Ash Trunk by Albert Joseph Moore, particularly appealed: it’s small and unassuming, but with the green, fresh detail the Pre-Raphaelites loved.

I said that every show has its standout pieces: for me, it was Millais’s The Eve of St Agnes (1863). Voyeuristic as this painting is, the stillness and hushed reverence of Madeline’s room, the beauty of the dim light and the whole aura of Pre-Raphaeliteness about it draws me in, a feeling which is enhanced by my fondness for the source text, too, the eponymous poem by Keats. Holman Hunt’s The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro (1847-57) is also here, smaller and less dramatic, but with a very different depiction of the tension of the poem; Hunt’s painting dramatises the fear of the couple as they try to leave, in a moment of action, while Millais offers us a tableau, a moment which is very like the scene that Porphyro sees himself: here, we are invited to be voyeurs along with him, seeing what he sees.
The Salutation of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1881-2, private collection

For many, the blockbusters here will be the later Rossettis: The Blessed Damozel (1875-9) (a painting which accompanies one of Rossetti’s poems, a topic for another post), the lush Venus Verticordia (1863-8) and Monna Vanna (1866) in particular. Rossetti’s lush, voluptuous over-ripeness dominates this end of the room; however, my preference is for The Salutation of Beatrice (1881-2). I think I prefer Rossetti’s paintings when they are less decorative, more medieval, more narrative-based. This is equally true, in my view, of Burne-Jones: the exhibition concludes with two large and impressive paintings. One is The Beguiling of Merlin (1873-7), in which Burne-Jones draws on the Arthurian narratives so loved by the PRB, creating an intimacy between Nimue and Merlin as she weaves a spell to bind him in sleep, a concept reflected in the framing branches in the painting. The other is Venus Discordia (1873), a large unfinished painting from a planned triptych of the fall of Troy. This is a strange painting, with a power that I find rather inexplicable. Venus weeps as she sees the destruction around her, and the story and the historical context of the work are carefully woven into it, and yet there is something about it which reminds me of Albert Moore’s langorous aestheticism, in which a scene is simply a scene, with no deeper meaning; there is something almost Symbolist about this.

Beauty and Rebellion is about a great deal more than Liverpool, then; it offers different painters and in some unexpected juxtapositions it inspires new views of the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s a pleasure to see old friends and discover works new to me, too; and it seems that every place has its own version of, or approach to, Pre-Raphaelitism; Liverpool’s is very satisfying. It’s also a reminder that art and business can go hand in hand; these intellectual, art-loving leaders of industry who supported Pre-Raphaelite painters are too often unsung, and without them art history might have taken a very different turn.
Venus Discordia by Edward Burne-Jones, 1872-3 (National Museum of Wales)

Sandys’ Medea: The stately form of Queenlike Tragedy

Medea, Frederick Sandys (1866-8), Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Frederick Sandys’ painting Medea (1866-8) is a divisive one: now as when it was first exhibited, opinions are very divided as to its beauty and power. Sandys was drawn to mythical, dangerous femme fatales (as were most of the Pre-Raphaelites), and Medea is certainly one of the most frightening. Her story – most famously delineated in Euripides’ play – is one of tragedy, and Euripides depicts her as a tragic victim who brings about more tragedy. A sorceress whose ancestry includes gods, she marries Jason (he of the golden fleece). In Euripides’ version, which begins after the couple marry, Jason has deserted Medea for another woman, and Medea, driven mad with jealousy and despair, murders the other woman, and her own two sons, to revenge herself upon Jason. Much is made of the tragedy and pathos of Medea’s love of her children and sorrow at their death in Euripides’ play, as the tragic mother says her last farewell to her sons:

I wish you happiness, but not here in this world.
What is here your father took. O how good to hold you!
How delicate the skin, how sweet the breath of children!
Go, go! I am no longer able, no longer
To look upon you. I am overcome by sorrow.
I know indeed what evil I intend to do,
But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury,
Fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.

image1Medea is a strong woman, who addresses the women of Corinth on the wrongs men do to women, lamenting the restricted lives they must lead, and their fate when abandoned. In Sandys’ picture, she is enchanting a cloak which will destroy Jason’s new wife, Glauce, by bursting into flames. The expression on Medea’s face is what gives the picture its power: she looks not at what she is doing, but away out of the picture, as if frantically picturing the damage she can do. There is pathos and sadness as well as fury and even madness in her look, which may account for its rejection from the Royal Academy and the view of many that it verged on indecency.

It is a picture that engages with a very specific moment in the drama, then, image3depicting Medea as Sandys imagined her from his reading of the story. Yet his work also inspired: Alfred Bate Richards, after seeing the painting during its completion and afterwards, wrote Medea: A Poem (London: Chapman & Hall, 1869). Richards was a writer and journalist, previously a lawyer, who knew Thackeray and Dickens as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Richards says that ‘If enthusiasm could always command ability, my part would not be unworthily executed, for I certainly began to write con amore‘.His interest is in somehow describing and providing another dimension to Sandys’ work:

How far the story of Medea is a fable is immaterial to my treatment of Medea as a human being … I have dealt with a great artist’s conception of a flesh-and-blood Medea…

He admits that he can offer ‘but a suggestion of the beauties of the picture’ – but it is a image2very long suggestion (62 pages), and while it has some merit as poetry, and interest too, as ekphrasis, it is often rather old-fashioned even for its time, given to florid excesses of description, archaisms, cliches, and calling on various Muses. Yet the remarkably vivid descriptive passages do conjure shades of Medea, both woman and picture, particularly in describing the horror of her life and its tragic events.There is much digression considering the transience of life and love, treachery, fickleness and the evil hand of fate; these are often reminiscent of graveyard poetry, with lurid and bloody spectacles interspersed. (‘When o’er the treetops suddenly doth fall/Night’s mantle like black cyprus funeral pall’). The tale is not really outlined; it is a lyrical outpouring imagining the state of being Medea, whom he describes as ‘The stately form of Queenlike Tragedy’, and it is this ‘form’ and its soul with which he is concerned, alongside a contrasting of pagan and Christian, in terms of civilisation and morality.

Unsexed, unholy and abhorred
Men still shall shudder at thy name
Who blench not ‘neath the headsman’s sword
Mother of foul infanticide,
Curst parricidal daughter, bride
And toy of gilded shame.

Repeatedly Richards returns to the picture itself, sometimes addressing it and sometimes Medea, sometimes (possibly) a watching Chorus, in an ekphrastic performance of immediacy. There is a clear fascination with the horror of her act: he dwells on the fear of the children, the unnatural act of killing them, and implies he would never have Jason_and_Medea_-_John_William_Waterhouseconsidered writing such a ghastly tale if it weren’t for Sandys’ painting. He concludes with a moral, that God can still forgive and humanity should not condemn (which is rather hypocritical after what he has already said). The concluding couplet states: ‘It is our faithless frenzy to confess/Which Heaven might not forgive, if Heaven were less.’

Richards is interested in art and poetry, then, and this is exemplified in a footnote in which he explains that he has at certain points tried to conjure up the feeling of some of Turner’s paintings, in words: not any particular painting, just an impression of Turner. Here, however, he is much more specific, calling on aspects of Sandys’ picture in detail, ‘reading’ into the painting and putting it into words. Richards shows none of Sandys’ specificity; the particular moment Sandys chose is diffused in the poem, the clarity obscured, yet, somehow, the focus sharpened by the concentration on the woman herself. The art of Euripides, of Sandys and of Richards, though not all equal (in my view) illuminate each other and speak to each other.

Note: If you’re interested, I found Richards’ poem at The Hive in Worcester. There aren’t many copies around (one source I read said only 8 extant).

Poetry and sculpture: ‘Paolo and Francesa’

img_2749A beautiful example of art inspired by poetry is Alexander Munro’s ‘Paolo and Francesca’ (1851-2), a marble sculpture which sits in the middle of the Pre-Raphaelite galleries at BMAG. Sculpture is a sadly overlooked aspect of Pre-Raphaelite art, but in many ways it bears the hallmarks of Pre-Raphaelitism (attention to detail, literary inspiration, and so on) as much as any Rossetti canvas.

Alexander Munro (1825-1871) was a friend of Rossetti’s, and was much influenced by him, which perhaps is indicated by his Dantean choice of subject in this work. Apart from ‘Paolo and Francesca’, he is probably most famous for his statues of scientists in the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Those, like this work, are formal, spare, with plenty of attention to detail and a beautiful life-likeness, but nevertheless simple. This sculpture seems to capture a moment in marble, the purity of the white and the beautiful simplicity of the lines of the work contrasting with the subject matter; this isn’t a happy story.

The work is based on Dante’s Inferno. In Canto V, Dante meets those who are being punished for sins of the flesh, and hears the story of Francesca da Rimini, who, married to a man she doesn’t love,  falls in love with his younger brother, Paolo. Their love is inspired by reading of the adulterous love of Lancelot and Guinevere in the tales of King Arthur, and this is the moment which Munro depicts, as, with the book open in front of them, Paolo ventures a kiss. There is something very poignant about this moment: they haven’t yet kissed, and they don’t know their eventual fate (death at the hand of Francesca’s wronged husband), so the purity of this moment frozen forever in marble is particularly sad and beautiful.

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Paolo and Francesca da Rimini 1855 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the Art Fund 1916

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painting the same subject (above), begins with a kiss, and shows the plotters who killed the couple and their eventual fate; this circle of hell tosses its inhabitants about with a violent wind representative of the passions which brought them there. Rossetti also translated Dante’s original, and this section is explained by Francesca:

One day we read, for pastime and sweet cheer,

Of Lancelot, how he found Love tyrannous:

We were alone and without any fear.

Our eyes were drawn together, reading thus,

Full oft, and still our cheeks would pale and glow;

But one sole point it was that conquered us.

For when we read of that great lover, how

He kissed the smile which he had longed to win,—

Then he whom nought can sever from me now

For ever, kissed my mouth, all quivering.

The moral dilemma, of love which will bring harm to all concerned but cannot be resisted, is a familiar one from Arthurian myth, being played out throughout the myths, and this moral dilemma, of social convention and morality challenged by great passion, is one which clearly held a great appeal for the Pre-Raphaelites. Christina Rossetti also indicates this story in her poem ‘The Hour and the Ghost’, where a woman who committed adultery is cast into hell:

O fair frail sin, O poor harvest gathered in!

Thou shalt visit him again

To watch his heart grow cold;

To know the gnawing pain I knew of old;

To see one much more fair

Fill up the vacant chair,

Fill his heart, his children bear:—

While thou and I together

In the outcast weather

Toss and howl and spin.

Munro’s sculpture reflects the last moment of genuine purity, then, rather than focusing on the punishment to follow, unlike others. The life-like figures are enticing; if it weren’t for the glass case one would be tempted to reach out and touch them, because this is a very tactile image – and in that it contains something different to the painted image – the three-dimensional, simple lines somehow make it both more and less ‘real’. It’s worth comparing Munro’s ‘Paolo and Francesca’ with Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ (1888), originally entitled ‘Francesca da Rimini’, which clearly owes a great deal to Munro is conception and form, though here the book is omitted and the eroticism more explicit.



Conference Call for Papers


Reading Art: Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry: Conference in Birmingham, 27-28 May, 2016

Keynote Speakers: Professor John Holmes (University of Birmingham) and Dr Dinah Roe (Oxford Brookes University)

Reading Art is a two-day conference hosted by Birmingham Museums Trust and organised by Birmingham City University, on 27th-28th May 2016. The conference is part of a wider project which explores Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry, and is supported by the AHRC Cultural Engagement fund. For more information on the project and the conference, see our blog:

For the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and those associated with them, painting and poetry were sister arts. Many Pre-Raphaelite paintings were inspired by literature, and many poems were written to accompany paintings. The interest in and practice of these intertwining strands is one which was widespread in Pre-Raphaelitism, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris to less well-known figures such as Edward Hughes and Marie Spartali Stillman. This conference will explore and celebrate the many ways in which art and literature are related in Pre-Raphaelitism, and there will also be opportunities to explore BMAG’s Pre-Raphaelite collection and visit the Burne-Jones stained glass in St Philip’s Cathedral.

Abstracts of up to 300 words are invited; please send to Dr. Serena Trowbridge ( by March 21st 2016. Topics may include buBeata Beatrix (BMAG)t are not limited to:

  • the work of a particular artist or poet
  • the exploration of depictions of poetry in art, or vice versa
  • readings of the visual and the verbal
  • the broader relationship between art and literature in the 19th century
  • sources of literary/artistic inspiration
  • disjunctions between art and literature
  • subsequent representations of Pre-Raphaelite art or literature
  • Creative submissions will also be considered.


The Painter-Poets

The following is extracted from the Introduction to The Painter-Poets, Selected and Edited by Kineton Parkes (London: Walter Scott Ltd, n.d. [1890]). The book is dedicated to John Addington Symonds, and, of course, includes selections from Blake, and some rather obscure poets, alongside the Pre-Raphaelites, from Ford Madox Brown to Rossetti and Walter Deverell. There is much here to disagree with, but it raises some interesting arguments.

The Art of the Poet and the Art of the Painter are closely connected, and in many cases the inspiration of each is drawn from a like source. The same groundwork is given, and upon it two structures are built – Poems and Pictures. The mechanism of each must be perfect, and the knowledge of the medium of each must be perfect, if a perfect work of art is to be the result. It is produced firstly from the mind, for the mind; the variation is in the medium. A picture or poem to be great must contain the expression of its creator’s thought, and in proportion as it does this is it an abiding monument of that thought. The greatest work of art is that which contains the most expression combined with perfect manipulation and selection of medium. Mere imitation is worthless; it contains no expression and declares nothing great. A great work of art must have meaning, and that meaning must be expressed beautifully, chastely, and harmoniously; clearly and without ambiguity. There is that within the mind of a great artist which will out; there is a power which will manifest itself in one way or another; there is a flood which will well forth or burst forth and find for itself a channel in which to run or in which to rush. There are many channels along which this tide of genius may flow: Poetry and Painting, Architecture, Sculpture and Music are some of them. Each one of these possesses some special characteristic of expression, and it is for the artist to discover in which of these forms he can best cast his thought. … There have been quite a number of painters who have sought the aid of the poetic muse to relieve them of the burden of their thoughts. In some cases it has happened that the verses of the painter have not been good poetry, but, for the most part, they have been sincere and worthy.
An artist may employ words or pigments to express his thought and produce a work of art, but for this work to be great, it is necessary that he should be both a poet and a painter, to use the words somewhat loosely. The two arts are so closely knit, that in all great work in either it is impossible to separate them. In every picture there should be the conception of the idea worked out poetically, and every poem should exhibit the painter’s eye – that is, his power of selection, if the poem contains description; it should also exhibit its author’s power of word-painting. In all the best poetry written by painters this selective process may be traced. In such poems the vividness of the word-pictures enables the reader to call up a vision of the scene, or of the personage described in the poem. And in the case of pictures by poets, a correspondence may be noted in the fact that all or most of such pictures contain a higher intellectual value than many a one which, in execution, may be far superior to them. The greatest pictures have not been painted by poets, and th greatest poems have not been written by painters, but of all the works of the painter-poets, both plastic and poetic, there is a degree of thoughtfulness and intellectual beauty, while some of them approach within very short distance of the highest art.

The art of poetry and the art of painting correspond in many important respects, proving themselves to be not merely sisters but twin-sisters of the arts. We have historical pictures and historical poems, pictures which depict a fair landscape, and poems which describe in words of colour as fair a scene. Allegories in painting and allegories in poetry are common; portraits painted in pigments we have, and we have also elegies and odes which are really portrait memorials … And again, there is the great subject picture, mythological mayhap, but still full of humanity, and this is matched in poetry by the epic; and, once more, we have the painting of the great incident, of which the the canvas gives a vivid representation, which is all life, motion, and feeling, and this too is done in poetry, in the drama, in which life is condensed into great episodes and situation crowds on situation, and all is stir and rapid action!

In all these things the two arts correspond; and in that each appeals to the mind, one through the eye, the other through the intellect, do they correspond also. Each, too, has its limits, and painting can accomplish many things out of reach of the poem, and the poem can express much which the picture cannot attempt.

A picture represents one point of time, and should therefore possess repose. In this one of the restrictions of painting is found, and in this it differs from poetry; for poetry may record any number of impressions, as it is progressive and passes from one incident to the next with rapidity, and can represent an indefinite period of time. … A painting is, however, more vivid than a poem; it is more concentrated, and the whole interest is crowded into a space which can be seen by the eye at a glance, and which requires no progress or development for its understanding. In verse the interest is suspended, the story has to be followed from stage to stage, and the vivid and powerful impression of the painting is entirely lost. A picture is, much more than a sonnet, “A moment’s monument;” for although a sonnet is almost the shortest of recognised forms of verse, it is still unable to produce with its fourteen lines the instantaneous impression to be obtained form one look at the story told in colour.

The poet is filled with thoughts and feelings to which he must give expression, and he therefore proceeds to reproduce them in the medium of words; while the painter, having similar thoughts and feelings, produces things which give expression to them in the form of visible presentments of his ideas. In this respect the poet is an abstract and the painter a concrete artist.

‘All possible devotion to poetry and beauty’

Inspired by the exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum at the moment, I’ve been thinking about how different art forms might reflect poetry in different ways. Cameron wrote that:

My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.

Of course, I think Cameron is referring to ‘poetry’ as a general term; after all, it’s a term often used loosely, suggesting a lyrical beauty which is perhaps a fit subject for poetry. But Cameron’s ambitions were to produce this effect often through reference to specific poems, too. The exhibition indicates the range of her social circle; her sitters included Tennyson, Darwin, Browning and a number of Victorian luminaries from the scientific to the poetic. It is with poetry that she seems to have a specific relationship, though: many of her photographs have a  title which relates to a poem, such as her beautiful Il Penseroso images, drawn from Milton’s eponymous poem. These are moments of stillness, one of which – the most nun-like – is accompanied by the lines ‘Come pensive nun devout and pure, Sober, stedfast and demure’. This moment of devotion and depiction of innocence tells us something about Cameron’s interaction with Milton’s poem, which is subtitled ‘The Serious Man’. It is not this man in deep thought which attracts her, but the ‘Goddess’ of Melancholy, who appears as a nun and inspires the man, that she depicts. It’s possible Cameron also had in mind Blake’s image of Melancholy from his L’Allegro/Il Penseroso series – and of course Handel also captured Milton’s exploration of exalted moods.

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For Cameron, then, photography is as much an art as any other, and she was determined to make the world see this at a time when it was still very much an emerging medium. She is clearly inspired by modes of painting, and takes as her subject very painterly topics as well as an artistic approach (very obviously influenced, in many ways, by her mentor and friend George Frederic Watts as well as other Pre-Raphaelite artists).

She is interested in historical styles and approaches, not just in the costumes and attitudes of her models, but in structure, subject and approach. I find this particularly fascinating given the emerging medium in which she was working, but of course how better to establish a new form as ‘High Art’ than to reference established works? Watts wrote to Cameron that ‘what would not do in a painting will not do in a Photograph’, suggesting the aligned approaches of both art forms. And, of course, Cameron shared many interests with the Pre-Raphaelites, in the poses and types of models she used, in her interest in the past, and most particularly in her literary subjects. Like the PRB, she was clearly particularly drawn to Tennyson’s poems, and the V&A exhibition includes some of her images which illustrate Idylls of the King, his Arthurian epic.

What Cameron offers are tableaux, with models carefully posed and appropriately dressed in medieval-style clothing. To look at these one cannot help but think that she worked with a painter’s eye, and yet she is very much a photographer: the depth of light and dark, in ‘Vivian and Merlin’, for example, wouldn’t work in a painting, but provides a mystical air to the photograph. There is also often a more casual and slightly less posed feeling in some of the pictures, allowing the viewer to believe for a moment that these might have been real. She chooses moments of high drama – sometimes tinged with Victorian sentimentality, I think – but which suggest to viewers something of the essence of the poems, and the myths on which they are based.

Cameron wrote:

I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.

Like the Pre-Raphaelites, with the desire to ‘record’ what they saw faithfully, yet with their own unique perspective apparent in every brush-stroke, Cameron creates her own reality of beauty and records it with her camera. It owes as much to poetry as to art, and what she creates was the first of its kind.

Literary art: contamination or transgression?

The original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and those that followed them, were avid readers. They read novels, especially Gothic, but it was poetry which really inspired them. Their ‘List of Immortals’ included many writers, such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Thackeray, Blake, Dante, Homer, Longfellow and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Most significantly, perhaps, is Keats, whose poetry inspired a number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and whose work bonded the Brotherhood in its early period. In The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites (ed. Prettejohn, CUP 2012), Isobel Armstrong uses the List of Immortals as a starting-point to consider the reading habits of the PRB. This seems a good place to start the Reading Art project, by thinking about what the PRB read, and the ways in which this influenced their art.

Ophelia Millais

I think it can be argued that the majority of the works produced by the Pre-Raphaelites was, in one way or another, ‘literary art’. This includes paintings or other works directly inspired by a poem or other form of literature, such as Millais’s Ophelia (1851-3, Tate, above), or Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil (Laing, 1868). It’s not just about direct inspiration, though: the literary approach of the PRB means that their art often has a more intangible literary aspect – for example, in narrative paintings, which seem to indicate a story but isn’t linked to a literary work, such as Millais’ Waiting (1854, BMAG, below).

Another literary approach is the use of symbolism, which echoes the ‘reading’ of the written word. One word is replete with a waitingrange of meanings and implications, from personal to universal, socially specific to timeless; a symbol, be it a flower, an abandoned glove or a mirror, means something when you’read’ a painting. The Pre-Raphaelites – particularly Rossetti – sometimes wrote poems to accompany paintings, or used lines of verse on a frame. It was a case of ‘ut pictura poesis’ – as the picture, so the poem: the verbal and visual are inseparable in the Pre-Raphaelite world view.

However, not everyone agrees. As Liz Prettejohn points out in the introduction to the Cambridge Companion, ‘Pre-Raphaelitism would seem to be a classic example of what the great America critic of modernist painting, Clement Greenberg, called “the confusion of the arts” – where painting is contaminated by narrative of literary allusion’ (p. 6). Greenberg was suggesting that there should be – can be – a ‘pure’ art, not infected by the narrative drive of literature but solely visual, which is perhaps not a surprising view for a modernist. However, the Pre-Raphaelites were, of course, also trying to break down barriers and ‘make it new’, as the modernists were, though in a very different form. Cambridge Pre-RaphsAs Prettejohn and many others are keen to emphasise, the PRB wanted to do something different, moving away from the ‘sloshy’ Academy painting to a new, clearer, truer form, but one which could still embrace the past and the present, as well as drawing on a rich heritage of myth and poetry. In their literary approach to painting, the Pre-Raphaelites were breaking down barriers between the visual and the verbal, beginning a dialogue between image and text which bore no relation to illustration but instead intentionally blurred the boundaries. As their doomed magazine The Germ indicates, these were artists, sculptors and poets who wanted to transgress the boundaries of the traditional, with revolutionary intentions. Poets painted, painters wrote, sculptors and architects tried their hands at different arts, and the result of such transgression, perhaps, was polymaths such as William Morris.

Prettejohn wisely points out that ‘Pre-Raphaelitism was both a literary and an artistic movement; or perhaps it would be better to say that it was neither, in that it refused to recognise the difference as meaningful.’ (p. 7) This is the approach that the Reading Art project will take, but it is not really the accepted view now; for many, Pre-Raphaelitism is an artistic movement alone, with little notice taken of its literary aspects. Please join my journey reading art over the next few months and see if you agree!

Tennyson reading Maud DGR 1855
‘Tennyson Reading Maud’, Rossetti, 1855 (BMAG)