Fantasy & the Pre-Raphaelites
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
This text of this post comes from a talk I gave at the annual 4th Street Fantasy gathering in Minneapolis, way back in the 1990s, in response to the question: "Who were the Pre-Raphaelites and why are so many fantasy writers interested in them?"
Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said: "I made a new religion of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters. I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and poems only, but in tiles round the chimney piece and in the hangings that kept out the draft."
In Victorian England, a group of idealistic men and women dreamed of creating such an ideal world, spinning their bright, richly colored dreams against the drab, smoky background of the Industrial Revolution. Although they came from different walks of life and different artistic disciplines, today we tend to group all these artists together as the Pre-Raphaelites: followers of an aesthetic ideal that also inspired (and overlaps with) the Arts & Crafts movement. Those of us drawn to their art are often drawn as well to its encompassing vision: the idea that art is not just something to look at, or to find in a book, but is (or can be) a way life — a religion of Beauty, of Romanticism, that surrounds one (as Yeats would say) right down to the tiles round the chimney piece.
The Pre-Raphaelite movement was officially begun in the middle of the 19th century by seven young artists* who were barely into their twenties at the time. Painting, as it was generally taught back then (at London's Royal Academy and other such schools) was bound by a strict series of rules, formulas, and conventions which determined what these artists could paint and exactly how they could paint it. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Millais were at the core of this group of friends who defied the art establishment by exhibiting subversive, scandalous paintings signed with the mysterious letters PRB. The initials stood for the group's nom de guerre: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They chose this name because they worshipped early Italian and Flemish art: the art before Raphael. The Brotherhood never set out to mimic the style of this early art; rather, they sought to evoke a similar spirit of freedom and simplicity: primarily by the radical concepts of painting directly from nature, out of doors; and by painting with bright, translucent colors straight onto a white background, rather than with the subdued Academy palette, painted light on dark.
This hardly seems radical to us today, but when the group began to exhibit such work, the paintings deeply appalled Academy officials and the viewing public. Looking at Pre-Raphaelite art today, what we see are quaintly historic images dripping with romanticism -- but what viewers saw in the waning years of Victorian England was something rather different. The colors these young painters employed were considered vulgarly bright (a number of the paintings have faded with age; we can only imagine their impact now); and, worse, they blythely ignored the prescribed list of "respectable" subjects. Instead, the Brotherhood painted and sculpted images drawn from Celtic legends and English folklore, and poems by Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson; or else they treated traditional subjects in shockingly untraditional ways. Millais' luminous painting of Christ's childhood, for instance, horrified Victorian viewers because it placed a barefoot Christ-child in a common carpenter's workshop.
The following review from the London Times was typical of the notice they received:
"We cannot censor at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do that strange disorder of the mind or eyes that continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves the PRB. These young artists have unfortunately become notorious by addicting themselves to an antiquated style and an affected simplicity in painting which is to genuine art what the medieval ballads and designs in Punch are to Chaucer."
Though taken aback by the fury of these attacks, the Brotherhood then received a stroke of luck. The influential critic John Ruskin, who admired the young painters' fidelity to nature, wrote to the Times in their defense, concluding that "with all their faults, their pictures are since Turner's death the best, the incomparably best, on the walls of the Royal Academy."
Now the tide began to turn. With Ruskin's invaluable (and often meddlesome) patronage, the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting proceeded to change Victorian ideas about art, and to buck the old establishment. Over time, these artists grew famous, wealthy, and became the art establishment themselves, against which the next generation of students (the Modernists) would rebel.
Although the term Pre-Raphaelite is now applied to a broad spectrum of artists, the original Brotherhood itself lasted only a few years before its querulous members went their separate ways.
John Everett Millais, the most accomplished painter of the group, became a highly fashionable Society artist; the frothy, sentimental canvases of his later years were widely viewed as a betrayal of the cause -- but earned him the money needed to support the many children he had after running away with Ruskin's wife in a widely publicized scandal. William Holman Hunt became obsessed with Palestine, traveling to the Holy Lands to paint religious subjects from life. In this he stayed true to the PRB ideals, painting long hours in the hot desert sun -- and carrying a pistol in his belt (he claimed) to discourage the local bandits. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's work largely abandoned the early PRB ideals: his palette grew darker, his compositions more formal, and he rarely painted out of doors as he focused, almost exclusively, on the female face and form. His lushly allegorical portraits scandalized and mesmerized the Victorian public. Indeed, so popular were Rossetti's ladies, with their wistful gazes and cascades of crinkly hair, that this is the image most people now associate with Pre-Raphaelitism -- rather than the plein air paintings of the original Brotherhood.
Rossetti was an eccentric, passionate man with great personal charisma, and he drew around him an extraordinary circle of artists, poets, and acolytes whom he fired with his Romantic ideals. The big brick riverside house he rented in London's Chelsea neighborhood was shared with the poet Algernon Swinburne, the novelist George Meredith, Rossetti's patient brother Michael (who often ended up paying all the bills), and a menagerie of pets including peacocks, marmots, deer, armadillos, hedgehogs, a vicious kangaroo, and some rather disgruntled wombats. This was the London of Oscar Wilde's day, when Whistler, or Browning, or shy Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) might drop in for tea and the latest gossip, and Thomas Carlyle's rather shabby figure could be seen strolling along the Thames. In one famous story, the inspiration for the dormouse in the teapot in Alice in Wonderland is said to have come from a pet rodent fast asleep in Rossetti's soup tureen; in other stories, visitors to the house related how Swinburne would go into fits, throwing off his clothes and dancing naked while reciting his poetry.
Descriptions of this lavishly Bohemian household are at odds with the usual image of the Victorians as sexually repressive and morally tight-laced. While it's true that respectable women (like Rossetti's sister, the poet Christina Rossetti) would not have been allowed to frequent the house or take part in the creative camaraderie, these rules did not apply to working class girls -- particularly those who modelled for the painters, considered little better than whores whether they kept their clothes on or not.
One of these models was Elizabeth Siddal, a cutler's daughter from the wrong side of the river with artistic ambitions of her own. "Lizzie," as she was known, is the tall woman with long straight golden hair who sits, sleeps, dreams, and combs her locks in so many of Rossetti's early drawings and paintings. She was his Muse, companion, painting partner...and eventually his wife (much to the horror of his middle-class family).
Growing up poor and female, Lizzie would have had no access to artistic training had she not fallen in with Rossetti and his friends. She blossomed in this company, producing drawings and paintings which won Ruskin's praise, and financial patronage. To Rossetti's credit, at a time when women's art was severely marginalized he had genuine faith in Lizzie's work and took great pains to promote it -- but she died before her art matured, and little of it survives today. Physically frail, prone to depression, and never certain of Rossetti's constancy, she died of an overdose of laudanum (an opium tincture) after the stillborn birth of their only child. Officially listed as an "accidental death," rumors of suicide were spread; and to this day no one really knows the truth of the situation. Distraught with grief, Rossetti buried his unpublished poems in his wife's coffin, wrapped up in her long gold hair. Years later, in an incident now famous in literary history, he reconsidered this romantic gesture and dug the coffin back up again, retrieving the poems and publishing them. Legend has it that Lizzie's famous hair was just as bright as always.
By this time, however, Rossetti had a new Muse: tall, dark, enigmatic Jane Morris. She too was of working class origins, and the wife of one of his closest friends.
William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were students together at Oxford University; Rossetti was older, famous now as both a painter and poet, and the younger men idolized his work. They wrote him a letter, and were duly invited to visit Rossetti in his London digs. "Topsy" Morris was a rather bearish young man, blessed with an inherited income and a prodigious amount of energy. Unlike Burne-Jones (known as plain "Ned Jones" then), Morris wasn't much of a painter -- but there was very little else the man couldn't do. Turning his talents to decorative arts, he worked to create a world around him as romantic as any Pre-Raphaelite painting, designing medievalesque furniture (hand-painted by Burne-Jones and Rossetti), tapestries, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, silver-work, stained glass, and anything else that caught his fancy.
Morris was the force behind Morris & Co., a firm dedicated to making and marketing objects of Pre-Raphaelite design. It was Morris's dream to thus bring art into the daily life of the common man; it was his belief that filling a man's soul with beauty was as important as filling his belly with food. Appalled by the cheap ugliness produced by new methods of industrial mass production, Morris championed the beauty of handcraft methods based on medieval craft societies. So strong was this vision that Morris is still a force in British design over one hundred years later: his furniture is treasured by collectors (particularly the famous "Morris chair"), his wallpaper designs are still widely used; his unique wool dye recipes are still followed; his beautiful type designs are classics of the form; and the hand-printed books of his Kelmscott Press sit in museum collections around the world. In addition, Morris was one of the fathers of modern British socialism; and many fine old English houses still exist thanks to the Society for the Preservation of Antique Buildings which Morris founded. This tireless man also wrote popular books of poetry and prose -- including translations of old Icelandic sagas, and magical tales such as Well at the World's End (considered by some literary historians to be the first modern fantasy novel).
Morris' boundless creative energy disguised a complicated private life: his wife Jane and Rossetti had fallen passionately in love. Although famous for his temper, in this regard he seems to have shown an extraordinary patience. Together with Rosetti, he rented Kelmscott Manor in a quiet corner of Oxfordshire; thus the lovers were able to be together without actually breaking up the Morris marriage.
It was about this time that Morris wrote his poem cycle The Defence of Guenevere -- the only clue we have of his feelings about this painful period of his life. His patience paid off some years later when two tragedies drew Jane and Topsy back together: their eldest daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy (untreatable then, and devastating); and Rossetti's mental health (always a bit unstable) began to collapse. Convinced he was stalked by enemies, and haunted by his dead wife's ghost, Rossetti retreated to his Chelsea house -- where he took great quantities of laudanum and wrote plaintive letters to Jane. His other mistress, Fanny Cornforth, looked after him there until the end of his life. A model (and former prostitute), Fanny was considered so vulgar by the Rossetti circle that she was not invited to his funeral, although she'd been the steadiest, truest friend he'd had in those last years.
With Rossetti's departure, Kelmscott Manor became a more tranquil home for Morris, Jane, and their two daughters, Jenny and May (an influential textile artist and designer). Jane eventually bought the house outright and it passed to her daughters after her death. In Kelmscott churchyard, Morris and Jane are buried in a single, simple grave.
Topsy and Ned remained fast friends from their Oxford days to the end of their lives. Shy, lanky Ned Jones evolved into Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a widely celebrated painter of mystical, dream-like imagery. His work, especially, inspired many of the "second wave" of Pre-Raphaelite painters -- such as John William Waterhouse, Evelyn de Morgan, Arthur Hughes, John Melhuish Strudwick, Maria Spartali Stillman, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, and Frank Cadogan Cowper.
Burne-Jones had his own flamboyant mid-life love affair, with the fiery Greek sculptor Maria Zambaco (cousin to painter Maria Spartali Stillman): her striking face and long dark hair can be seen in many of his best drawings and paintings. In the end, Burne-Jones reneged on his vow to leave his marriage and returned to his quiet and practical wife, Georgiana, while the angry, heart-broken Zambaco threatened to drown herself in Thames. To complicate things further, there is evidence to suggest that Georgiana may have been in love with William Morris, and Morris with her -- but these two, despite their unconventional lives, had been raised with high Victorian ideals. Faithful Georgie remained at her husband's side, enduring Zambaco and her husband's penchant for surrounding himself with pretty young women; Morris remained with Jane, bound by convention, their children, and a mutual affection that had survived many years of trial.
* * *
Perhaps it's the drama of these entwined lives, as much as the beauty of the art itself, that makes the Pre-Raphaelites so irresistable to many of us in the fantasy field; we writers love a good story after all. But I think it is also significant that late-19th century Pre-Raphaelites and late-20th century fantasists tend to hold these things in common: a love of myth and mysticism, of Celtic legends and epic Romance, of imaginary worlds and the natural world, of symbolism, metaphor, and magic. There is magic in the Arthurian paintings of Burne-Jones, and the jewel-toned panels of of his Briar Rose series (based on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale). There is magic in Rossetti's pensive women, in Millais' Ophelia, in Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott. There is magic in Morris' utopian fantasy novels, now classics of our genre.
In fantasy literature, as in Pre-Raphaelite art, we find a deep nostalgia for the landscapes of the rural past: in the rolling Shires of Middle Earth, the island villages of Earthsea, the unspoiled forests of Narnia, Islandia, and Mythago Wood. As editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has pointed out, it is probably no accident that the explosive popularity of Tolkien's books and the subsequent birth of the modern fantasy genre occurred at the same time as the growth of the modern ecology movement. In an age of urban expansion and aggressive suburban development, many of us long for simple green fields, clear waters, and the timeless beauty of winding woodland trails -- a hunger fed by journeys through the untamed woods of fantasy.
One hundred years ago, William Morris watched as his beloved English countryside disappeared under rapid industrialization; his art and politics express an impassioned appeal for a rural way of life -- for a return to an idyllic, chivalric medieval past that had never been.
One final link joins modern fantasists with the unconventional painters and poets who lived, loved, worked, and dreamed one hundred years before us: Like the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, before the tides of fashion turned in their favor, fantasists must work outside the approval of the art establishment. Fantasists use themes that are once again considered beneath the notice of serious artists: myth, magic, fairy tales, and stories unabashedly Romantic. William Morris and his followers in the Arts & Crafts movement explored forms derided as decoration, not serious art: ceramics, weaving, embroidery, jewelry-making, furniture, book design, etc., just as today we work in forms that are rarely accepted as serious literature: genre fiction, children's fiction, book illustration, and comics.
The Pre-Raphaelites ignored the conventions of their day, and the critics quick to dismiss them. They refused to change their vision to suit the times -- they changed the world around them instead. Perhaps those "tiles around the chimney piece and hangings that keep out the draft" may seem like small, inconsequential ways of going about changing the world...and yet these things still influence the art, the dreams, the daily lives of men and women over one hundred years later. The Pre-Raphaelite vision is still alive to inspire many of us today.
Perhaps some day we'll be able to say the same about the best of the mythic art and fiction created in our own century. In the meantime, we can take heart from the timeless work of the Pre-Raphaelites: from those seven original rebellious young men; from the men and women who followed them; and from all steadfast, visionary souls who have walked this road before us.
Footnote: The original seven members of the Brotherhood were: James Collinson, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner.
Pictures: The art above is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.)
Words: This article originated as a talk given at the 4th Street Fantasy convention in Minneapolis (at the request of Steven Brust). It subsequently appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1997, and The Journal of Mythic Arts. To learn more about the Pre-Raphaelites, I recommend these sites: The Pre-Raphaelite Society, The William Morris Society, the online archives from the Tate's Pre-Raphaelite Visions show (2004); plus these wonderful blogs: The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood and The Kissed Mouth.