Romanticism: the Pre-Raphaelites
The concept of 'Truth to Nature' espoused by the greatest Victorian writer on art, John Ruskin, was founded upon a romantic perception of the natural world and veneration for the truthfulness of Turner and Wordsworth. Like the Pre-Raphaelite artists whom he championed, Ruskin believed that academic painting had sacrificed its freshness of vision and sense of moral purpose, in the pursuit of an essentially sterile formal agenda.
The Pre-Raphaelites favoured literary subjects from the Bible, medieval romances, Shakespeare, and modern romantic poetry. One of the Brotherhood’s leading lights, Dante Gabriele Rossetti was himself both a poet and a painter. His protegé Edward Burne-Jones accompanied Ruskin to Italy in 1862, where he discovered the linear grace of early Renaissance art.
Begun in 1870 and completed in 1882, Burne-Jones's painting The Mill depicts the three Graces dancing to the music of Apollo. The models were friends and relatives of Constantine Ionides, who commissioned the painting. His cousin Mary Zambaco, who posed for the woman on the far left, was Burne-Jones's lover.
The Mill displays what Ruskin termed 'the subtlest mythologies of Greek worship and Christian Romance', as well as acquaintance with Giorgione's poetic scenes and Botticelli's Primavera. 1 In 1891 Burne-Jones met the young Aubrey Beardsley, and encouraged him to pursue an artistic career.
Beardsley's illustration How King Arthur Saw the Questing Beast was commissioned by the publisher J.M. Dent for Thomas Malory's Mort d'Arthur, a late medieval story of magic, romance and sparring dynasties. Its decorative detail and flat surface effect were inspired by Japanese prints. Burne-Jones was appalled by Beardsley's drawings, which appeared virtually to parody the Pre-Raphaelite style.
The Aesthetic creed of 'art for art's sake' made both the style and subject-matter of Victorian romanticism appear increasingly old-fashioned. A dwindling band of adherents lingered until after the First World War.
The distaste of a younger generation is apparent from the novel A Buyer's Market by Anthony Powell. Set in 1928-9, this presents a fictitious Edwardian painter named Edgar Deacon as a shabby and outmoded survivor from a past era:
'Pre-Raphaelite in influence without being precisely Pre-Raphaelite in spirit…he disliked the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists almost equally; and was, naturally, even more opposed to later trends like Cubism, or the works of the Surrealists…his painting, in its own direction, represented the farthest extremity of Mr Deacon's romanticism, and I suppose it could be argued that upon such debris of classical imagery the foundations of at least certain specific elements of 20th-century art came to be built. At the same time lack of almost all imaginative quality in Mr. Deacon's painting resulted, finally, in a product that suggested not "romance" - far less "classicism" as some immensely humdrum pattern of everyday life'.2
1 R. Hewison, I. Warrell and S. Wildman, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 2000, p.237.
2. A. Powell, A Buyer's Market, London 1952, pp. 2, 4-5, 9.Abridged from the catalogue of the V&A touring exhibition The Romantic Tradition in British Painting 1800-1950 (2002-2003). All the works illustrated are from the collections of the V&A, and many are on display in its Paintings galleries.