Thursday, May 7, 2020

Art Eyewitness Review: Victorian Radicals: from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement

Victorian Radicals: 

from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement 

Yale Center for British Art
February 13–May 10, 2020

DelMonico Books-Prestel/280 pages/$65

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Charles Dickens took up his pen in the June 15, 1850 issue of Household Thoughts to warn the good people of Great Britain of a new danger. If not stopped, this peril would lead Victorian society to the "lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting."

This peril did not arise from a new disease afflicting the slums of London nor a worsening level of the stench of the River Thames. Moreover, the socially-sensitive Dickens did not have to report a rise in the mortality rate of eight-year old chimney sweeps or child prostitutes. Rather, the threat was posed by a group of young artists who signed their paintings with an enigmatic acronym, PRB.

The initials stood for Pre-Raphael Brotherhood. The striking art works of the "PRB" have been touring the United States over the last year in the Victorian Radicals exhibition. Currently, the exhibit is in "suspended animation" at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, waiting for the Covid-19 quarantine to be lifted. Fortunately, DelMonico Books/Prestel has published an especially beautiful catalog of Victorian Radicals to help art lovers deal with the pangs of being "locked-down" from seeing works of art which so infuriated Dickens.

Dickens' opposition to the Pre-Raphaelites is difficult to credit in the present day. The near-hysteria of his reaction to the PRB group and their attempt to steer British art away from the path of Renaissance masters such as Raphael was remarkable even for 1850.

The Pre-Raphael Brotherhood, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the dread Tribunal which is to set this matter right. Walk up, walk up; and here, conspicuous on the wall of the Royal Academy of Art in England ... you shall see what this new Holy Brotherhood, this terrible Police that is to disperse all Post-Raphael offenders, has "been and done!"

John Ruskin, whose achievements were recently chronicled in a wonderful exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, defended the PRB in 1851.

"They intend to return to early days in this one point only - that, as far as in them lies, they will either draw what they see, or what they suppose to have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making."

Victorian Radicals: from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement deals with a broad sweep of British art history. As the subtitle affirms, the PRB set the stage for the "hands-on" Art and Crafts Movement. The Arts and Crafts credo, voiced most powerfully by William Morris, extolled carefully-made works of art  and artifacts for daily use. Human beings are creative beings, not cogs or interchangeable parts in a soulless assembly line.

Truth to nature! The reward of labor is life! The PRB and the Arts and Crafts artisans were improbable revolutionaries, but revolutionaries all the same.

Victorian Radicals presents 145 paintings, works on paper, and stunning examples of decorative art — ceramics and tiles, jewelry, stained glass and fabrics. 

William De Morgan, "Peacock" Vase, ca.1885

All of the exhibit objects in Victorian Radicals come from the collection of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, founded in 1885 in the English Midlands city which was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. The fact that the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has such an outstanding collection of PRB paintings testifies to the eventual acceptance of Pre-Raphaelite art following the initial abuse and rejection by Dickens and other critics.

In  September 1848, as political revolution swept the continent of Europe, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In place of slavish devotion to the Old Masters, the PRB conceived a bold vision. Just as Millais’ The Blind Girl (1856), addressed all forms of human sensation - sight, sound, hearing, smell and touch - so the PRB aimed to open the minds, hearts and feelings of the people of their time to a world of beauty.

John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl, 1856

Millais, Rossetti and Holman Hunt were soon joined by Rossetti’s brother William, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens to form the “Brotherhood.” Ford Maddox Brown (1821-1893), an already established painter, proved a ready ally. Later in the decade of the 1850’s, two young Oxford students, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, took-up the Pre-Raphaelite cause.

Initially, Pre-Raphaelite art had a religious orientation. This reflected two controversial aspects of British life during the 1840's: the fascination with medieval architecture, the Gothic Revival, and the liturgical reform moment known as Oxford Tractarianism. By extension, both of these movements, especially that of the Oxford scholars, sparked fears that Roman Catholicism would stage a "revival"  in England. 

For a nation proud - and defensive - of its Protestant heritage, the threat of "Papist" Rome seemed very real. In the event, only one of the Pre-Raphaelites, James Collinson, "crossed the Tiber" and entered a Catholic religious order. 

Several of the PRB paintings in Victorian Radicals, however, demonstrate the influence of medieval pictorial traditions and of the resurgent Roman Catholic Church. This is demonstrated by The Annunciation by Arthur Hughes. Never a formal PRB member but an enthusiastic and well-liked ally, Hughes shows how the Pre-Raphaelites sought to evoke the world view and sentiments of the Middle Ages.

Arthur Hughes, The Annunciation, 1858

The vivid colors in Hughes' painting, especially the purple dress of the Virgin Mary, reflected contemporary events rather than the Middle Ages. In 1856, two years before Hughes painted The Annunciation, a young chemistry student, William Perkin, who was seeking a way to make synthetic quinine, accidentally created the first non-organic dye, light purple in color. 

Perkin's discovery sparked a color sensation, as reflected in Hughes' painting. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is unlikely ever to have worn a purple dress, but for stylish women in Victorian Britain, the 1850's and 1860's were the "Mauve Decade."

Unknown Artist, Day dress, ca. 1865

Hughes' The Annunciation is also noteworthy for the ethereal beauty of Virgin Mary. This, again, was more than an allusion to the Middle Ages.

The young men of the PRB were infatuated with an ideal of feminine beauty or “stunners” as they called the young women who matched their conceptions. One in particular, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddall, was the perfect model of a “stunner” and indeed she posed for several iconic PRB paintings, most notably as Ophelia for Millais. 

Pale-skinned, with reddish blond hair and sensitive eyes, Lizzie Siddall caused Dante Gabriel Rossetti to swoon, as his namesake had done in medieval Florence. The moment is captured in a allegorical drawing by Rossetti, Love's Mirror. Observing a young woman painting a self-portrait, a Renaissance artist catches site of his face and realizes that he is smitten.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Love’s Mirror, or a Parable of Love, 1850–52

Lizzie Siddall had artistic aspirations of her own. Several sketches on display in the exhibition testify to her talent. Rossetti, an unabashed Romantic by nature, was - or seemed to be - the perfect mentor. Everyone, Lizzie Siddall most of all, expected an early marriage and a creative partnership such as Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had achieved.

Instead, tragedy ensued. Rossetti was infatuated with the physical ideal represented by Lizzie Siddall, as much as he loved her. This is evident in his most famous painting, Beata Beatrix, of which he did two versions. 

Rossetti was enthralled with the legendary love story of the poet Dante for Beatrice Portinari. He had Lizzie pose as the medieval Italian beauty, doomed to die an early death. Rossetti, however, could not bring himself to finish the paintings. The work stretched on for years, leaving Lizzie little opportunity or encouragement to develop as an artist herself.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix,1877 (completed by Ford Maddox Brown) 

To make matters worse, other red-haired stunners came to pose for Rossetti. Alienated in art and in love, Lizzie's spirit withered. She died from an overdose of laudanum on February 10, 1862. 

William Holman Hunt, Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti1882–83

It is easy to demonize Rossetti for failing to nurture Lizzie Siddall as an artist - and care for her as his wife. Rossetti had many attractive qualities, including generosity to other struggling artists when he achieved some financial security later in life. He encouraged the great woman photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, though his inner demons eventually sabotaged this relationship too.

Had this been a unique failing of Rossetti that would have bad enough. However, he was not the only Pre-Raphaelite who can be censored for his attitude to women. Another artist in the PRB circle, Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), devoted much of his considerable talent to painting femmes fatales, like the vengeful Morgan le Fay from the legend of King Arthur.

Frederick Sandys, Morgan le Fay, 1864

The man who led the Pre-Raphaelites out of the dead-end of misogyny and faux medievalism was an unlikely hero: William Morris (1834-1896). A lover of all things from the Middle Ages,  Morris exclaimed that "the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization." 

Never-the-less, Morris grasped that medieval art could serve as a template for objects of utility for a beauty-starved contemporary world. A brilliant publicist, Morris also had a “head” for business, if unconventional methods. In 1861, he founded a firm to produce decorative arts based on Pre-Raphaelite themes. He made the initial mistake of going into partnership with Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown, and his own boon-companion, Edward Burne-Jones. As the firm floundered and his own capital drained away, Morris bought out the others and reorganized it under his sole direction in 1875.

Morris chose his moment well. The decade of the 1870’s was the high noon of the Gothic Revival and Morris & Co. became a big, marketing success. Morris hired skilled craftsman to produce medieval-themed works, including a number of designs for stained glass church windows by Burne-Jones.

       Saint Mark        
Edward Burne-Jones, designed 1873, made by Morris & Co., 1883

Morris & Co produced works of the highest quality and wide-ranging variety. As well as stained glass windows, Morris and his talented team - which included his daughter, May - created tapestries, wall-paper, hand-produced furniture, carpets, folding screens and embroidery, all exuding the Victorian interpretation of the Middle Ages. 

William Morris, “Strawberry Thief,” 1888

The pinnacle of Morris' devoted effort to revive the Middle Ages was a lavish book, produced to match the standards of printing prior to 1501. This was The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now newly imprinted, popularly known as the Kelmscott Chaucer. Conceived in 1892, it was published four years later, after exhaustive - and exhausting - labor. 

The Kelmscott Chaucer displays 87 magnificent illustrations by Burne-Jones who worked devotedly and with a growing sense of concern because of the collapsing health of Morris. The engraving, on wood blocks, was done by Willaim Harcourt Hooper. Morris was personally involved in every phase of the book production, taxing his now fragile body to the limit. He died, as Burne-Jones feared, four months after the first copy of this astonishing volume came-off the printing press.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, The Kelmscott Chaucer, 1896

Morris' death was a tragic loss, but this could not disguise a very real problem with his valedictory work. There was, in fact, a two-fold problem with the Kelmscott Chaucer
Due to its expense, its price excluded all but wealthy private collectors. Copies printed on paper cost £20, those on vellum £126.

By comparison, an English housemaid in 1894 earned between £12 to £20 per year; a gentleman's valet, £70. The average annual wage for all workers in England in the mid-1880's was £46, 12 shillings, less for those in Scotland and Ireland. By 1896, there was some modest improvement in wages and prices, but not enough for the British man-in-the-street to conceive of buying a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer, even on the "installment plan."

This economic disparity limited the utility of Morris' masterpiece, making it a book for display rather than for actual reading. On both counts, the Kelmscott Chaucer represented a contradiction rather than the culmination of what Morris believed.

Morris did succeed, indirectly, because the success of Morris & Co. influenced the glorious Arts and Crafts Movement that spread throughout the world, including the United States, in the decades before World War I. The Arts and Crafts Movement provided opportunities for artistic expression and work for greater numbers of creative men and - especially - women than the PRB could ever have achieved.

Where Lizzie Siddall had tried and died, Mary Newell succeeded. It is one of the great treats of Victorian Radicals that this little-known artist based in Birmingham is given the credit that is her due.

Mary Jane Newill, Bedcover, ca. 1908

Mary Jane Newill (1860–1947) was truly a "Renaissance Woman," excelling in embroidery, book illustration, painting and stained glass design. Her role as a teacher at the  Birmingham School of Art for nearly thirty years, as well as maintaining her own professional studio, was an exemplary achievement. Newill insured that what she had been able to accomplish, others could do as well.

Newill's work with embroidery and book illustration was perhaps the best known of her oeuvre. Her amazing achievement in stained glass design is no less significant.

Mary Jane Newill, Sleepe after Toile, before 1905 (left-hand panel)

I am particularly impressed with the two Sleepe after Toile  panels which illustrated the Elizabethan literary epic, The Faerie Queen, by Edmund Spensor. The scene of medieval ships anchored in the harbor of a great walled-city brings to mind William Butler Yeat's poem, Sailing to Byzantium, published in 1928, more than two decades after Newill created the design for Sleepe afterToile. There is no finer testament to great art or a great artist than this.

Newill's Sleepe after Toile is a masterpiece of narrative art. This is a common thread, uniting PRB paintings with Arts and Crafts artifacts. Victorian art was little given to abstraction, one reason that it was scorned or ignored for so much of the twentieth century. But the "Victorian Radicals" had their own tale to tell, their own lessons to teach. 

Once again, it is John Ruskin who best sums-up the still living fire of Britain's Victorian Radicals.

"Fine art," Ruskin proclaimed, "is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the  Yale Center for British Art, the American Federation of Arts and the Birmingham Museums Trust, U.K. book Cover illustration, courtesy of DelMonico Books-Prestel

Introductory Image:
John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl (detail), 1856. Full citation below.

William De Morgan (British, 1839-1917)  "Peacock" Vase, ca.1885. Earthenware, painted in underglaze colors over white slip: 13 1/4 x 11 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches (34.8 x 29.2 x 28.5 cm)  Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Presented by Bridget D'Oyly Carte, 1949M29, © Birmingham Museums Trust

John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl, 1856. Oil on canvas: 31 3/4 inches x 21 inches (80.8 x 53.4 cm) Presented by the Rt.Hon.William Kendrick, 1892, courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust   

Arthur Hughes (1832-1915), The Annunciation, 1858. Oil on canvas: 24 1/8 x 14 1/8 inches (61.3 x 35.9 cm) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Purchased, 1892P1 © Birmingham Museums Trust   

Unknown Artist, Day dress, ca. 1865. Woven silk, machine- and hand-stitched: 56 7/8 inches (144.5 cm) length. On loan from private collection, courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British,1828–1882) Love’s Mirror, or a Parable of Love, 1850–52. Pen and ink over graphite with ink wash on paper: 7 x 7 3/4 inches (17.5 x 19.5 cm)   Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Presented by subscribers, 1903-1904, P 491 © Birmingham Museums Trust   

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British,1828–1882) Beata Beatrix, begun 1877 and finished by Ford Maddox Brown, 1882. Oil on canvas: 34 1/8 x 26 7/8 inches (86.8 x 68.3 cm) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Purchased, 1891P25 © Birmingham Museums Trust  

William Holman Hunt (British, 1827-1910) Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti1882–83. Oil on mahogany 11 7/8 x 9 in (30.2 x 22.9 cm) Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery Purchased with assistance of funding from the bequest of HT Wiggins-Davies 1961P33 © Birmingham Museums Trust

Frederick Sandys, (British, 1829-1904) Morgan le Fay, 1864. Oil on composite wood: 24  x 3/4 x 17 1/2 inches (63 x 44 cm)  (Presented by the Trustees of the Feeney Charitable Trust, 1925, courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust

Designed by Edward Burne Jones, glass painted by Thomas G. Bowman, made by Morris & Co., Saint Mark, 1883 (designed 1873). Stained, painted, and colored glass with lead, iron tie bars, and copper ties (in wood frame). Bequeathed by J. R. Holliday. Courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust

Designed by William Morris, printed and sold by Morris & Co., “Strawberry Thief,” design registered 1888. Indigo-discharge block-printed cotton. Presented by Miss K. E. Harris, 1973. Courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust 

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, with coworkers at the Kelmscott Press (London), The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted (the so-called “Kelmscott Chaucer”), 1896, bound book with 87 woodcut illustrations on handmade Perch paper, Presented by Colonel Harold Wilkinson, 1934. Courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust

Mary Jane Newill ( British,1860–1947) Bedcover, ca. 1908. Linen embroidered with colored wools: 90 1/2 x 92 1/2 inches (230 x 235 cm) Purchased with the assistance of the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, 1982M35. © Birmingham Museums Trust

Mary Jane Newill, Sleepe after Toile, before 1905. Stained, painted, and leaded glass: 2 panels, each 12 1/8 x 24 3/8 inches (31.5 x 62 cm) Purchased with Art fund support and the assistance of the V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of Birmingham Museums Trust, 2001M161-2 © Birmingham Museums Trust

No comments:

Post a Comment