1 OCTOBER 1948, Page 11



IT is fortunate that the centenary of the founding of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood should fall at the present time, for we are in a mood to appreciate the aims and ideals for which it stood, and even if some of its members failed in their objectives we can sympathise with their failures. Today, faced with a menaced civilisation ourselves, we have a nostalgic interest in the Victorian period and in such artistic manifestations as the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. Unlike the smart young art-critics of the nineteen- twenties, we have no desire to scoff at these self-proclaimed revolu- tionaries of mid-Victorian art.

The Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition which has opened at the Tate Gallery this week provides the opportunity to assess the outstanding paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite school by modern standards. We can see again Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat, John Everett Millais's Mamma and a host of other famous pictures. But the main interest of Pre-Raphaelites, in my opinion, is not so much in what they painted, but in the literary and artistic ideas that prompted them to launch their crusade to reform mid-Victorian art—then in danger of dying from what John Ruskin denounced in his famous letters to The Times. " Let us only look around at our exhibitions," he wrote, " and behold the cattle-pieces, and sea-pieces, and fruit-pieces, and family-pieces, the eternal brown cows in ditches, and white sails in squalls, and sliced lemons in saucers, and foolish faces in simpers, and try and feel what we are, and what we might have been." The characters of the three main protagonists of the Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais, are also of absorbing interest ; the men were so different in temperament but united by common aims and ideals.

As we look back to those early days in September, 1848, when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by the three eager art- students, we find that there is a touching youthfulness about its aims as set down by William Michael Rossetti. We read that the " P.R.B." aimed: "One. To have genuine ideas to express. Two. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them. Three. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self- parading and learned by rote. Four. Most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues." It is interesting, incidentally, to recall that William Michael Rossetti became art- critic of The Spectator in 185o at what he considered the princely salary of 5o per year.

There is is no doubt that the Pre-Raphaelites succeeded in putting their ideas into practice, and their influence permeated all branches of British art during the latter half of the nineteenth century. For once the poet Coventry Patmore had persuaded Ruskin to write his letters in defence of the movement to The Times the British public welcomed the artistic theories of the Pre-Raphaelites with open arms. However, success destroyed the unity of the Brotherhood. As fame and old age descended upon the once-young Pre-Raphaelite brothers, their highly individualistic personalities clashed, their early comradeship was forgotten, and the movement culminated in what William Gaunt has aptly termed "The Pre- Raphaelite Tragedy."

I was brought up in a circle that vividly remembered these men. Opinions were sharply divided as to whether Rossetti or Holman Hunt was the guiding genius of the Brotherhood. My mother remembers visiting the studio of Holman Hunt in Melbury Road and hearing the aged painter describe Rossetti as " that sly, Italian fox."

Coventry Patmore, too, who had been so proud to contribute to the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ in his youth, could write con- temptuously at the end of his life : " I am intimate with the Pre- Raphaelites when we were little more than boys together. They were all very simple, pure-minded, ignorant and confident. Millais was looked upon as some sort of leader, but this I fancy was partly because he always had more command of money than the others who were very poor."

Looking through my great-grandfather's papers, I find that he also made some trenchant comments on his Pre-Raphaelite colleagues. " Holman Hunt," he wrote, " attracted me personally more than any other of the Pre-Raphaelites. He was heroically simple and constant in his purpose of primarily serving religion by his

art, and had a quixotic notion that it was absolutely obligatory upon him to redress every wrong that came under his notice.. . . Rossetti was in manner, mind and appearance completely Italian. He had very little knowledge of or sympathy with English Litera- ture, and always gave me the impression of tensity rather than intensity. . . . Millais's conversation and personality was not striking, except as being in strong contrast with his vigour and refinement as an artist. From the beginning he felt and exhibited a boyish delight in worldly success and popularity."

Today the passions and controversy aroused by the Pre- Raphaelites are forgotten. As we review their achievements in this year of their centenary, it is mainly as illustrators that we find them interesting. The association of literary ideas with the visual art of painting was one of the most remarkable features of Pre- Raphaelite painting. Rossetti in particular tried to create a synthesis between painting and poetry. Indeed, the fascination that many Pre-Raphaelite pictures still exercise over the present generation is perhaps due to the. fact that they usually illustrate a story or incident.

It will be remembered that the four Pre-Raphaelite paintings which created such a furore when they were first exhibited in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1851 were Holman Hunt's Valentine and Sylvia, and Millais's The Woodman's Daughter,

illustrating Coventry Patmore's poem of this name, Mariana of the Moated Grange, illustrating Tennyson's poem, and The Return of the Dove to the Ark—all paintings with a story. In view of the controversy aroused by such paintings as The Woodman's Daughter, the following hitherto unpublished letter written by Coventry Patmore to the Pre-Raphaelite painter and critic, Frederick George Stephens, in 1885 has interest.

" I remember The Woodman's Daughter," he wrote. "It was a charming picture in all save this principal point. The girl looked like a vulgar little slut. The landscape consisted of a wood of tall and slender trees, the stems of which, if I recollect rightly, were alone seen. It was very striking and pleasing. The boy was in Millais's best manner. Millais painted my wife's portrait for me (a present), but it omitted all the refinement of her face, and had the truth and untruth of a hard photograph. I keep it locked up, as I do not like the children to think it like their mother ; and for a similar reason I should not like to have it exhibited. [It is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.] I don't know where Ths Woodman's Daughter was painted."

The Pre-Raphaelites may have aimed at recapturing the simple sweetness and faith of the early Italian masters, but there was something in the climate of Victorian England which frustrated

these aims. When we re-read the poems that inspired many of their paintings, and when we look at the pictures themselves, we sense that feeling of sadness, a weariness and a strange mysticism, which are so characteristic of the whole movement. The Pre-Raphaelites, like ourselves, were not happy in the age in which they lived.