Uncommon threads

William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1888-1905)

At once visionary and hooked on naturalism, nostalgic for the Middle Ages yet prophetic of 20th-century interiority, pre-Raphaelitism is the most self-contradictory movement in British art. This must be why, as Tate argues in its new survey, “each generation has reinvented the pre-Raphaelites in its own image”. What then does Millbank’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde tell us about ourselves?

The pre-Raphaelites cared about fidelity to nature, storytelling and psychology, and their best paintings combine that trio of obsessions. In “Ophelia” (1851-52), John Everett Millais depicted the opulent foliage of fields and streams in Ewell, Surrey, before completing the work in a Bloomsbury studio, where model Lizzie Siddal, as Shakespeare’s drowned heroine, lay in a cold bath until she caught pneumonia. William Holman Hunt painted “The Scapegoat” (1854-56) in situ at the salt-encrusted shallows of the Dead Sea, its lurid colour and lifelike portrait of a drooping, parched goat symbolising not just the biblical story of sin cast out but the ills of morally polluted industrial England.

Millais and Hunt founded the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti – all were under 21 – in 1848, and garnered support from John Ruskin, the leading Victorian art critic. Ruskin saw the medieval craftsman as superior to the modern factory slave; as a social reformer he explained Hunt’s “The Awakening Conscience” (1853), where a kept woman perceives the error of her ways, as an allegory of spiritual emptiness in a materialist age:

“That furniture, so carefully painted, even to the last vein of the rosewood – is there nothing to be learned from that terrible lustre, from its fatal newness?”

As young men, Hunt, Millais and Rossetti maintained a near-febrile realist impulse even in their most mystical or mythical works. Charles Dickens complained that Mary, in Millais’ acute delineation of a carpenter’s workshop, “Christ in the House of His Parents” (1849-50), was “so horrible in her ugliness that ... she would stand out in ... the lowest ginshop in England”. Hunt worked nightly on “The Light of the World” (1851-56), by moonlight and candlelight, to present Christ as a human visitor knocking at the door of dark Victorian society. Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith” (1866-73) imprisons the femme fatale of Jewish folklore in a boudoir whose every textural detail emphasises Lilith’s sensuality as, Rossetti thought, “queen of the demons”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Lady Lilith’ (1866-68)

Set against French paintings from the same decade – Gustave Courbet’s close-up of female genitals in “The Origin of the World” (1866); Edouard Manet’s prostitute “Olympia” (1863) – such works look coy, but Tate makes a good case for pre-Raphaelite social radicalism, with a hang emphasising topical concerns: “Nature”, “Salvation”, “Paradise”.

Less persuasive is the attempt to tease out a contemporary feminist agenda: a pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood suggested by feeble paintings (Lizzie Siddal, Rosa Brett), or irrelevant works (Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs), along with claims such as that Rossetti’s “principal model” Fanny Cornforth “may be considered a collaborator”, is absurd.

Tate’s last pre-Raphaelite show was in 1984; the current catalogue declares that we have moved on from a “conservative reading” of the movement. I disagree: this show, scorning individuality, is narrower; its thematic approach chimes with a 21st-century climate that favours conceptual over expressive art-making.

The significant pre-Raphaelites are the three founders, plus the second-generation figure of Edward Burne-Jones. How each matured, negotiated fame, personal disappointment, changing influences, in unpredictably different ways, is crucial to understanding their art. Millais married Mrs Ruskin, and became sentimental (“Bubbles”, 1886). Rossetti, infatuated with William Morris’s wife Jane, attempted suicide, then developed a proto-symbolist oeuvre whose high point is a depiction of Jane as “Proserpine” (1874), goddess of the underworld.

Hunt’s ‘The Scapegoat’ (1854-56)

The 1984 catalogue acknowledged this as Rossetti’s outstanding work; disgracefully, although it belongs to Tate, and is Rossetti’s most beloved painting, this show omits it. Is it too personal, distinctive, exceptional? Its absence will not only disappoint – it also renders less meaningful the show’s trophy loan, Hunt’s dense final painting “The Lady of Shalott” (1888-1905), borrowed from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut.

Hunt’s transgressing heroine, flamboyantly tied up in skeins of thread, is hemmed in by eclectic objects. It is a display referencing fin-de-siècle aestheticism, in a narrative recalling Rossetti’s sex-and-death symbolism, especially “Proserpine”, created by a painter who remained a disconcerting, desperate realist.

That fact was Hunt’s real subject. Millais and Rossetti were both dead, and Hunt saw himself as the sole faithful pre-Raphaelite, with “The Lady of Shalott” an emblem of betrayal. It is an extraordinary conclusion to a show that, in its very unevenness, demonstrates pre-Raphaelitism’s continuing ability to provoke and challenge.

‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’, Tate Britain, London, to January 13, www.tate.org.uk;

National Gallery, Washington, February 17-May 19 2013;

State Pushkin Museum, Moscow, June 10-September 30 2013

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.