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Disputing the origins of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

“W.M. Rossetti’s letters provide ample evidence that he was the energiser in the Pre-Raphaelites”

Origins of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood not so clear

In the preview of the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition (The Art Newspaper, September 2012, p29), you remark that the date and place of the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are known exactly—that is, September 1848 in Millais’s home in Gower Street, Bloomsbury. But, sadly, we cannot be certain of these facts because they derive from Holman Hunt’s self-serving and unreliable record of the Brotherhood, concocted long after the event, in which he downplays the role of Rossetti and Rossetti’s mentor Madox Brown in favour of the contribution of himself and his close friend Millais.

We have to go to contemporary records, but these are few and not very helpful. W.M. Rossetti noted in his journal entry of 1 January 1850: “This was the day appointed (in lieu of yesterday, which was found unsuitable) for our first anniversary meeting at Stephens’s—fixed on the last day of 1848 for the last day of each succeeding year.” So, was the Brotherhood founded on 31 December 1848, or was this date selected because it was easy to remember and none of the Brothers were sure exactly when they had decided to form the Brotherhood? We don’t know.

Neither is the visual evidence very helpful. Although many of their drawings and some of their paintings are inscribed “P.R.B.”, as far as I know there are none securely dated to 1848 that were certainly inscribed with these initials at the time they were made. For example, Hunt’s drawing One Step to her Death Bed and Millais’s drawing Two Lovers by a Rosebush bear the date 1848 and dedications to their “P.R.B. Dante Gabriel Rossetti”, but these dedications are in different ink to the drawings and must have been added later. The first certainly dated works to bear the initials “P.R.B.”, as integral and original to the whole, are their paintings exhibited in the spring of 1849 and some drawings of the same time described then by W.M. Rossetti.

As to the place where the Brotherhood was founded, the new edition of [W.M.] Rossetti’s letters provides ample evidence that he was the energiser in the group. He gathered the seven members of the Brotherhood together. He chose their name, encouraged their interest in art before Raphael and organised their magazine, the Germ. The most likely place for him to have conceived these things would be the Rossetti family home at 50 Charlotte Street, now Hallam Street, behind RIBA.

- Alastair Grieve, reader in art history (retired), University of East Anglia