Books: What does Pre-Raphaelite mean?

This collection of essays questions how we understand the terms Pre-Raphaelite, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement


Pre-Raphaelite painting was rediscovered in the 1960s, providing a feast for researchers. The subject is seemingly inexhaustible. The editors justify their addition to the literary outpouring with the claim that theirs is the “first collection of essays to shift the emphasis away from the artwork itself and on to the diverse strands of the written record which surrounded and shaped Pre-Raphaelite practices”. The resulting essays are rich in citations from Pre-Raphaelite writing, contemporary reviews, catalogues, letters, biographies and autobiographies, with valuable cross-references to recent scholarship. It is a pity that, despite the argument for text, words are not more closely integrated with the visual experience of the pictures which inspired the writing. Twenty-four black and white reproductions illustrate just six of the essays. The book concludes with a good if not comprehensive bibliography, but the index has too many omissions to be useful in a field of such wide enquiry.

The essays are grouped around four themes: the written history of the Pre-Raphaelites, forging artistic identities, critical languages, and promulgation. The central problem addressed by the authors, that of “writing” the Pre-Raphaelites, or interpreting them critically, is how we might understand the terms Pre-Raphaelite, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. For, contrary to general belief and as the essays variously expose, Pre-Raphaelitism was not a “single idea…with a…focused aesthetic agenda; it was different things at different times”. Here Deborah Cherry pursues her own agenda, disparaging the Tate’s popular survey in 1984—“The Pre-Raphaelites”—for exemplifying an uncritically romantic presentation of their achievement. Cherry goes on to examine the roots of the story in the Victorian literary industry as the precedent for 20th-century perceptions of the Pre-Raphaelites. Despite her concluding emphasis on the importance of feminist studies in reviving contemporary interest in women artists and thereby challenging the meaning of Pre-Raphaelitism, gender issues are not separately considered. Other essays highlight the contemporary ideal of masculine Britishness. Julie F. Codell explores this aspect of national identity in “Pre-Raphaelites from rebels to representatives”.

In the next thematic cluster David Peters Corbett, Julie L’Enfant, Michaela Giebelhausen and William Vaughan examine the sometimes discreditable strategies employed by artists and their apologists in fashioning Pre-Raphaelite reputations.

Two contributors identify new critical languages to communicate the innovatory aims of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Jason Rosenfeld discovers one in William Michael Rossetti’s “reference-free” appreciation of Pre-Raphaelite landscape on its own terms. Colin Cruise argues that reviewers were responsible for developing a negative terminology to denigrate the new poetic painting of the 1860s. The rise of the contemporary art market, which encouraged a commercial link between aesthetic and economic value, receives fascinating treatment by Matthew Plampin and Malcolm Warner. They explore the importance of creating a “brand” which could be promoted through public display and the distribution of reproductions.

These illuminating essays occasionally drift into theorising jargon but the general reader and scholar alike will find in them much to sharpen interest in the Pre-Raphaelites as a national asset of more than insular significance.

o Michaela Giebelhausen and Tim Barringer (eds), Writing the Pre-Raphaelites: Text, Context, Subtext (Ashgate), 276pp, £55 (hb) ISBN 9780754657170