Exhibition explores the avant-garde aspects of the conservative Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelite movement was conservative: “back to the future” might well have been its motto



It is often difficult, if not impossible, precisely to date the beginning of a movement. Unusually, if not uniquely, however, the dates of the foundation and launch of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) and its artistic programme are pretty exact. The PRB was formed in September 1848 in Gower Street, London, by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, who were soon joined by four more artists: James Collinson, F.G. Stephens, Thomas Woolner and William Michael Rossetti. Their work was shown for the first time the following March at the Royal Academy.

Although the PRB made an emphatic start—their works were immediately and loudly denigrated by many critics until John Ruskin not only defended, but legitimised and hallowed them—like so many “movements”, Pre-Raphaelitism remains hard to define. The founders were rather vague about their aims and the brotherhood began to split up within 18 months of its foundation. By the mid-1850s the original artists had gone their separate ways.

Nevertheless, the PRB succeeded in establishing a visual language—at first, angular, almost shadowless modelling and stark clarity of gesture based on early Netherlandish paintings and engravings of early Italian murals, and later, brilliant colours laid on a wet, white ground, details painstakingly reproduced, and a sharp, all-over focus.

The movement was innovative in its contributions to landscape painting, placing great emphasis on the necessity of painting plein air to achieve greater verisimilitude. It revolutionised religious art by reviving the medieval language of symbolism and typology, and by depicting biblical characters and saints as “ordinary” people. They also introduced modern-life subjects to painting, often with a social or moral dimension.

The Pre-Raphaelite style and subjects quickly entered the mainstream and they came, in a variety of ways and media, to dominate the arts for the rest of the 19th and the early 20th century. The founders were followed by artists such as John Brett, Arthur Hughes, J.W. Inchbold and William Bell Scott. Thomas Seddon and Henry Wallis extended the movement’s reach through their positions at the Liverpool Academy. A second generation that formed around D.G. Rossetti took Pre-Raphaelitism in a new direction under William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The Arts and Crafts Movement, the Aesthetic Movement and Symbolism were direct descendents of Pre-Raphaelitism.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement was, broadly speaking, conservative (even Morris’s “socialism” never attacked the basic order of society): “back to the future” might well have been its motto. Its exposure and condemnation of the evils of industrialisation and urbanisation and the immorality they spawned were based on nostalgic notions of a better past. They lent support to the increasingly powerful and backward-looking Catholic and Gothic revivalist movements in the Church of England. Whatever their personal delinquencies, their art endorsed conventional morals. Pre-Raphaelite art was laughed to scorn by the Modernists who dominated Western high culture from the end of the First World War until the late 1960s, when, largely through a series of shows created by Mary Bennett, the keeper of British art at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, the Pre-Raphaelites were rehabilitated, culminating in the Tate Gallery’s encyclopaedic show of 1984.

This Tate Britain show is considerably smaller (150 works compared with 250 in 1984) and attempts to reinvent the Pre-Raphaelites as “avant-garde”, emphasising Morris’s political ideas and the painters’ socially aware works. It is organised by Alison Smith, a curator of Tate Britain, Tim Barringer, a professor of art history at Yale University, and Jason Rosenfeld, a professor of art history at Marymount Manhattan College, New York. It is sponsored by the Pre-Raphaelites Exhibition Supporters Group. In exchange for its Pre-Raphs, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is showing 11 paintings from Tate Britain by artists not involved in Pre-Raphaelitism, such as Lord Leighton, Alma-Tadema and J.W. Waterhouse.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Back to the future'