Category Archives: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

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.


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)



‘Reading Art’: Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry

‘Reading Art’ is a three-month Cultural Engagement project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), organised by Dr Serena Trowbridge, Lecturer in English at BirmiBeata Beatrix (BMAG)ngham City University. The project is based at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), and will explore the literary aspects of their Pre-Raphaelite collection.
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.

The works in the Birmingham collection indicate this breadth of literary engagement, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1877), inspired by Dante’s Vita Nuova, to Edward Hughes’ Night with her Train of Stars (1912), based on W.E. Henley’s ‘Margaritae Night (BMAG).jpgSorori’. These literary paintings take poetry as their inspiration, depicting a figure from the text, and a particular moment in the poem. We see an idiosyncratic, personal image of what the painter saw as he read. Such literary depictions are common in Pre-Raphaelite works, and indicate the depth of artistic engagement with literature that the Brotherhood and their followers maintained.

This project aims for an enhanced understanding of the process and motivations of the artists who painted literary subjects, and will also explore ekphrastic writing, considering how poetry responds to art.

The Reading Art project will be supported by ongoing research, and will also hold a number of events. Research and events will be reported on this blog. These include:

  • a 2-day conference
  • a series of public lectures
  • student workshops on art and poetry
  • storytelling sessions
  • an online exhibition.

The project is still in the early stages, but if you are interested and would like to find out more or get involved, do follow this blog or contact me.