The Poetry of Drawing

July 15, 2011
Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914) ‘Oh, what’s that in the hollow, so pale, I quake to follow?’ ‘Oh, that’s a thin dead body, which waits the eternal term.’, 1893, Watercolour with gum and scratching-out on paper, Royal Watercolour Society
Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914) ‘Oh, what’s that in the hollow, so pale, I quake to follow?’ ‘Oh, that’s a thin dead body, which waits the eternal term.’, 1893, Watercolour with gum and scratching-out on paper, Royal Watercolour Society

Britain’s historic love of the written word has tended to overshadow all other cultural expressions. Shakespeare or Charles Dickens may be universally admired, but try to name a notable British composer for the period from the death of Henry Purcell in 1695, to the rise of Edward Elgar, (b. 1857). The visual arts have been better served but historians often discern a painful gap between the death of J.M.W.Turner in 1851 and the heyday of artists such as Francis Bacon a century later.

The Pre-Raphaelites inhabit that gap, and we are still coming to terms with their ambiguous blend of modernity and nostalgia. Our view of the movement has long been coloured by its literary predilections, and by the near proximity of the French Impressionists, whom they precede by a generation. When we think of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro, we do not imagine scenes from the Bible, the Arthurian romances, Wordsworth or Tennyson. Mention Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, and almost every picture has a story, a theme or a moral. Rossetti was as much as poet as painter.

The Impressionists were not known as draughtsmen but drawing was central to the art of Rossetti and his peers. Compositions were carefully planned, with numerous preliminary studies. Faithfulness to Nature was an essential part of the credo of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, leading to an extraordinary attention to detail. The story-telling impulse found expression in the variety of drawings, watercolours, prints, illustrations and caricatures, which may be sampled in The Poetry of Drawing at the Art Gallery of NSW.

In a show originally put together for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, curator, Colin Cruise, has chosen works that explore the full range of Pre-Raphaelite preoccupations, taking us from the heyday of the movement to the many echoes it generated in the twilight of the Victorian era. He has also written an excellent book on the subject, which serves as the catalogue for this survey.

Few artists have been more maligned or misunderstood than this small band of Brits who came together in 1848 to challenge the traditions and conventions of the Royal Academy. It’s doubtful that they understood themselves. By 1854 the original Brotherhood had been disbanded, but the spirit of Pre-Raphaelitism would be kept alive by artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, with its impact being felt in the Arts and Crafts movement, Aestheticism, and even the Neo-Romantic dabblings of the 1940s.

As the age of Modernism recedes, the art of the Victorian era has been subject to strenuous reassessment, with paintings once treated as kitsch and sold for a few hundred pounds now changing hands for millions. They have become desirable again, even fashionable, with collectors such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sydney’s John Schaeffer leading the way.

The revived popularity of the Pre-Raphaelites has led to a spate of exhibitions, and even a BBC TV series, Desperate Romantics, which took serious liberties with the truth, although the real story hardly needed embellishing. The Pre-Raphaelites were the original rebels without a cause. They struck out against the ideals and practices of an establishment that held up the work of Quattrocento Renaissance painters such as Raphael as a standard of excellence. The only problem was that none of these young men had much of an idea about Raphael, or what came before him. They naively imagined that earlier artists had shown a greater fidelity to Nature, a simple and pious attitude to art and religion.

Their original inspiration came from a book of engravings by Carlo Lasinio that reduced the work of early Renaissance painters to diagrammatic outlines. Their champion, John Ruskin, would be ferocious in his condemnation of Lasinio’s book, but it had a significant impact. Considering that in 1848 Rossetti was the eldest of the three primary members of the group, at the age of 19, it’s hardly surprising that Pre-Raphaelitism began in flurry of idealistic confusion. When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was officially born in August that year, Rossetti, Millais and Hunt were joined by painter James Collinson; sculptor, Thomas Woolner; writers and occasional artists, Frederick Stephens and William Michael Rossetti.

In the years that followed there would be many fellow travellers and associates, including Ford Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes, Walter Deverall, and Charles Collins. The second phase came along eight years later, when Morris and Burne-Jones eagerly sought out Rossetti’s mentorship. All of these artists are represented in The Poetry of Drawing, although some, such as Collinson, proved to be minor talents. More substantial contributions were made by figures such as Frederick Sandys and John Brett, who deserve to be better known today.

It’s hardly possible to improve on William Gaunt’s description of the beginnings of the group in his sparkling book of 1942, The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy: “Pre-Raphaelitism was a misunderstanding they all misunderstood. It was a reform and a dream. It was real and unreal. It was modern, it was in the Middle Ages. It was a reasonable conclusion on fanciful premises, a fantasy resulting from a practical proposal. It was an escape from the age and a means of converting it. It was a circle in which the future and the past chased each other round.”

It was, in brief, one of the greatest muddles ever to be called a movement. That disorder is reflected in the works in this show, and helps explain the neglect of the Pre-Raphaelites for much of the twentieth century. Their modernity was saturated with medievalism, with a fascination for ye olde days of the round table, for the stories of the Old and New Testament, the writings of Shakespeare and Dante. It was as eccentric and eclectic as the work of today’s Japanese manga artists.

Compare this with the deadpan views of the French countryside and urban life produced by the Impressionists, and it’s obvious why they triumphed and the Pre-Raphaelites went into the cupboard.

When we take out those Pre-Raphaelite works and subject them to renewed scrutiny, they are still like messages from another planet. The three principal artists, Rossetti, Millais and Hunt, were so different in temperament that it seems remarkable they could have tolerated each other for a day. Milliais had been a child prodigy, enrolled at the RA from his early teens. He possessed the most consummate skills and the most worldly ambitions. Hunt took a puritanical view of religion and art, working at major Biblical paintings with a sense of realism that verged on masochism.

Rossetti, who came from a family of Italian political exiles, was the most mercurial and charismatic. His genius was forever being extolled by the same people who criticized his drawings, while his long romance with the model, Elizabeth Siddal, is one of the most mythologised liaisons in the history of art. The notorious final act came seven years after Siddal’s death, when Rossetti had her body exhumed to retrieve a book of his poems he had impulsively put into her coffin.

Although he saw Siddal as an ideal, Rossetti carried on long-term affairs with other women such as Fanny Cornforth. This exhibition shows how he turned women such as Siddal, Cornforth and Jane Morris into allegorical figures, in iconic pictures filled with mystery and immaculate beauty. His drawing of Morris as Mnemosyne, is a perfect example of his worshipful approach to womanhood.

Rosetti Pre-Raphaelite AGNSW

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Study of Jane Morris for ‘Mnemosyne’, 1876, Pastel on paper © Private collection c/o Christie’s Images Ltd., 2010

For all their talk of Nature, the majority of paintings and drawings left by the Pre-Raphaelites are almost gleefully artificial. They were frequently criticised for the effeminate nature of their heroes, and their languid, mournful approach to subjects such as love. With their pointy faces, big eyes, flowing locks and despairing expressions, the characters in a typical Pre-Raphaelite painting look like consumptives who have just finished shooting an arduous hair spray commercial.

Some works, such as Frederick Sandys’s androgynous, green-faced Medusa (c.1875) are comical in their attempts to a make a realistic drawing of a mythological figure. Even stranger is Burne-Jones’s tile design featuring a beautifully-coiffed Theseus stalking a cutesy Minotaur who peeps at him from around a corner. Nothing could be further from Picasso’s crude embodiment of sexual energy.

It’s hard to make comparisons in this rather crazy collection, which combines careful portraiture, wild fantasy, stained glass and furniture designs, elaborate illustrations, and exacting studies of tiny bits of nature. Rossetti’s “stunners” are the eye-catching works, but the masterful drawings are those of Millais. His two careful portraits of Lizzie Siddal as Ophelia, have an air of truthfulness that transcends the make-believe. We know that Siddal lay for hours in a bath tub, in a heavy soaking gown, while the water got progressively colder. No wonder she looks slightly dazed, no wonder her health was so ruinous in later years. The young Pre-Raphaelites may have struck all the heroic attitudes, but it was their model that made the ultimate sacrifice for art.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 9, 2011

The poetry of drawing: Pre-Raphaelite designs, studies and watercolours, until 4 September.