Back in my university days, next to the posters of rock stars, prints of ethereal Ophelia and raven-haired Proserpine held a place of honour on my wall. Pre-Raphaelite paintings have always resonated with me: was it the romanticism of these perfect but tragic beauties or maybe the perfect shade of their auburn hair which I tried to reproduce for myself – with varying degrees of success – for many years?
To my great delight, travelling on the top of the 29 bus one day, I spotted a plaque on a rather ordinary end-of-terrace house on Gower Street in Bloomsbury: “In this house the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848”. Since that day, I have often saluted that plaque and imagined the exciting meetings of young talents behind those now rather dirty windows.
The year 1848 is very significant. It was a time of change: a tide of revolution swept like wildfire across the European continent. In England the monarchy wasn’t under siege, but the revolutionary wind of change gave rise to massive Chartist demonstrations and a swathe of new radical ideas in politics, science and art. It is in this effervescent atmosphere that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born. They were a band of seven brothers-in-art, but the three main figures behind the manifesto were John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.
A meeting of young talents
83 Gower Street (now renumbered no. 7) was Millais’s family home. He was a child prodigy: his wealthy parents noticed he was showing great promise, so they moved from provincial Southampton to the heart of Bloomsbury and enrolled him into the prestigious Sass’s School of Art. The building survives at present-day 10 Bloomsbury Street, pretty much unchanged from the 1820s, but there is no plaque to mark its interesting past. Millais attended the school from the very early age of nine, with much older students. His precocious talent did not go unnoticed and sparked the jealousy of the other students, who once left him hanging from a window by a pair of stockings. Luckily Millais survived to paint another day and at 19 his talent was officially recognised when he was granted the honour of exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the inner sanctum of British art in the mid-19th century. (A picture of Millais may be seen at watts_sir_john_everett_millais | Discover more artworks in “… | Flickr)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti came from a completely different background: his father, Gabriele, was an Italian political exile who had fled Italy as suspected of being part of the Carbonari secret society fighting for Italian unification. While Millais was rather mild-mannered and conventional, Dante Gabriel had all the flair and panache of his Mediterranean origins. Always a snazzy dresser, his long purple velvet coat, flowing long hair, infectious enthusiasm and irresistible banter made him a hit with men and women alike. Rossetti had a real eye for the ladies, and had no trouble persuading good-looking shop girls and ladies of the night to pose for him and his friends. Apparently he was the one to coin the term “stunner”.
Like Millais, Rossetti showed a remarkable drawing talent from a very young age. A milkman remarked that, while delivering milk at the Rossetti family home in today’s Hallam Street, a little cul-de-sac in Fitzrovia (a blue plaque marks the location) “he saw a baby drawing a picture of a rocking horse”. Allegedly, that baby was Gabriel.
From a relatively poor background, William Holman Hunt also studied at Sass’s school, later sharing a studio with Rossetti at 2 Cleveland Street in Fitzrovia, on the site of today’s Sainsbury Wellcome Centre. Hunt was the most spiritual of the Brothers, as reflected in the moral and religious themes of his paintings. He was fascinated by Biblical texts, a passion which drove him to travel repeatedly to the Holy Land, where he went in search of material and inspiration. Sporting a magnificent Victorian beard (legend has it that he used it as a shade when he was painting in the Holy Land), he was the most serious and introverted of the three.
Looking back to look forward
This diverse trio had one thing in common: the desire to change the direction of art. They loathed contemporary art, especially the dark and unimaginative paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds (whom they mockingly called “Sir Sloshua”) and wanted to go back to the simpler and more honest art before the 14th century painter Raphael, hence the name Pre-Raphaelites. They started as a secret society: in fact, they cryptically signed their early paintings with PRB. They favoured medieval subjects and simple compositions, brilliant colours on a white background and truth to nature: they always painted nature directly, en plein air, and added human figures later in the studio. Today it is hard to see their paintings as revolutionary, but they did cause a major stir in the stuffy art circles revolving around the Royal Academy.
Charles Dickens detested them and launched, in his magazine Household Words, a vitriolic attack against Millais’s ‘Christ in the house of his parents’ (an extremely realistic scene, miles away from traditional religious iconography, see https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-christ-in-the-house-of-his-parents-the-carpenters-shop-n03584). He particularly hated the representation of the Virgin Mary, portrayed as a ginger-haired working class girl, and called her: “so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England”.
Ruskin to the rescue
The Pre-Raphaelites would have been destined to oblivion, were it not for John Ruskin, the most authoritative Victorian art critic, who took them under his wing. Millais was his particular protégé, until their relationship went sour when Ruskin’s beautiful and long-suffering wife Effie Grey found solace in the arms of the young Millais; this caused a huge public scandal, which led to a very acrimonious divorce.
Luckily Ruskin’s patronage was then bestowed on Rossetti and his support of the Group continued. Ruskin even extended his appreciation and support to the artistic production of a Pre-Raphaelite “sister”, Rossetti’s lover and muse Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal. Discovered in a millinery shop in Cranbourne Alley off Leicester Square, Lizzie is the original Pre-Raphaelite redhead, at a time when red hair was most definitely not considered an attribute, due to its association with witches and bad luck.
The real Ophelia
It is Lizzie Siddal who posed as tragic Ophelia at Millais’s studio at 8 Gower Street. She was a model prepared to suffer for her art: to create the effect of Ophelia drowning in the river, she posed for Millais in a bath full of water. To keep the water warm some oil lamps were placed underneath. On one occasion, the lamps went out and Millais was so engrossed by his painting that he didn’t even notice. Elizabeth got very cold and became quite ill as a result, but luckily she recovered.
For the rest of her career, she posed almost exclusively for Rossetti and lived with him as his “pupil” as she had artistic ambitions of her own. In fact she was the only woman who exhibited at the first Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition in Fitzroy Square in 1857. But she is mostly remembered for her tragically short life, plagued by depression and miscarriages: her decade-long relationship with Rossetti was as tumultuous as it was passionate, with constant promises of marriage that were not kept until a few months before her death, at 32, of a laudanum overdose.
Beyond the grave
Lizzie is buried in Highgate West Cemetery, in the Rossetti family vault with eight members of the Rossetti family, including Dante Gabriel’s mother and sister Christina (famous Victorian poet in her own right), who always thought she was not good enough for Dante. Ironically, Rossetti himself is not there; he is buried in Birchington, Kent. He decided that he would under no circumstance be buried with Lizzie, probably out of guilt: always prone to grand romantic gestures, he had left his only copy of love poems for Lizzie in her casket, but after seven years he decided to retrieve the manuscript in order to publish it. That meant exhuming Lizzie’s body in secret in the middle of a cold October night. Although he wasn’t present, tales circulated of Lizzie’s body having been perfectly preserved in death and her bright red hair having continued to grow, now filling the casket. Rossetti was haunted by this image for the rest of his life: he tried to make contact with Lizzie through séances, kept painting her obsessively as a ghostly figure, but ultimately decided it would be safer for him not to share the same grave!
Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ceased to exist after a few short years, their influence on modern art is huge. “Ophelia” is one of the most reproduced paintings ever (see https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-ophelia-n01506). Millais’s paintings have been endlessly reproduced on biscuit tins and Christmas cards. We can proudly say that this bohemian band of brothers from Camden (and a sister too) have left an indelible mark on British and global art history.
“Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel” by Lucinda Hawksley
Image at top of page is the Blue Plaque on 7 Gower Street, (c) Elena Paolini, 2021