In 1849, a radical group of artists calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, led by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, took the British art world by storm. In that same year, John William Waterhouse, the artist who would go on to represent the culmination of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, was born.
This month, exactly 160 years on, The Royal Academy in London is mounting the first substantial exhibition of Waterhouse’s work since his death in 1917. And, in what promises to be a bumper summer for Pre-Raphaelitism, the BBC is showing two new series dedicated to Millais, Hunt and Rossetti.Waterhouse’s work has enormous popular appeal (his painting of The Lady of Shalott has for many years been Tate Britain’s best-selling postcard) and the recent high sales prices achieved (this month, Christie’s sold his sketch for The Magic Circle for £40,850; in April his Miranda fetched $746,500 in New York). But the absence of a major Waterhouse show until now reminds us how, somewhere along the way, Pre-Raphaelite art fell dramatically out of favour with the critical establishment. Set in mythical or literary pasts, populated by doomed lovers and femmes fatales, these sumptuous paintings were dismissed as irrelevant early in the 20th century, when modernism and Dadaism cut art free from representation.
One painting on show in the RA serves as a particularly eloquent illustration of the depths to which the artistic reputation of Waterhouse, and the PRB as a whole, once sank. In 1905, at the height of his fame, Waterhouse painted Lamia, based on the Greek myth of a snakelike woman who would mesmerise men before sucking away their lifeblood. The picture, imbued with a dreamlike atmosphere typical of Pre-Raphaelite art, was immediately snapped up by the reputable collector Sir Alexander Henderson. Just 37 years later, the picture re-emerged for auction at Christie’s – only this time, the painter’s currency had crashed, his subject matter so far out of fashion that it was sold for a paltry 32 guineas as an unattributed painting of “A maiden kneeling before a knight…”.
How had things got to this point? It was the largely Franco-centric tastemakers of the early 20th century who stuck the knife in. Though the leading critic of the 19th century, John Ruskin, endorsed Pre-Raphaelitism as “a school of art nobler than the world has seen for 300 years”, his successor, the Bloomsbury-ite Roger Fry, dismissed the PRB as parochial, illustrative failures who dealt in “archaistic bric-à-brac”.
For many years since, Fry’s criticisms have stuck: Pre-Raphaelite art still carries a whiff of fustiness. Can this summer’s bonanza finally restore these works to their rightful position among the great – and ground-breaking – British contributions to the history of art? Those who consider shock value to be an important mark of artistic innovation should not forget that, in their day, the PRB caused as great a sensation as the modern painters who succeeded them. They introduced a heightened realism, in which every particularity of the natural world was minutely displayed. They began painting outdoors a decade before the Impressionists and depicted the human form without idealising it. Their work was a departure from the paintings in the grand style that had dominated British art, paintings which, imitative of Raphael, had presented the Victorian public with idealised figures set in whimsical landscapes.
Taking their inspiration from those medieval artists who preceded Raphael, pictures like Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents, painted in 1850, claimed to return truth to art by imagining Christ not as a cherubic messiah but as a skinny, poor child with dirty toe nails and grubby clothes, living in a meagre carpenter’s shop painted with such democratic attention to detail that even the wood shavings on the floor were given the artist’s full attention.
This alternative, non-idealised image of Christ so horrified Charles Dickens that he lambasted Millais in his magazine Household Words, telling him that “wherever it is possible to express the ugliness of feature, limb or attitude, you have expressed it”.
Thirty-five years later, Waterhouse reinvented the classical world in a similar kind of imaginative high definition. His St Eulalia (left, middle), pioneering in its archaeological accuracy, depicted with terrible matter-of-factness the half-naked corpse of an adolescent Christian martyr, lying among vermin pigeons in some wintry municipal corner.
If we need reminding of the revolutionary aspects of Waterhouse and the Pre-Raphaelites, there are other elements of their work that need no translation for today’s viewer. Sex, death, obsession, betrayal and human frailty are what these pictures are really about.
Take a look, for example, at the peculiar eroticism of Eulalia’s alabaster torso lying in snow. Waterhouse rams this in our face with a strange foreshortening of her body that amplifies its sense of its proximity to us. Once you take this on board, you no longer need worry about the relevance of a classical scene in the 21st century; the death and sex will do just fine. Waterhouse repeatedly plundered myth for stories that would allow him to paint pictures of women, entranced, almost orgasmic, as they move towards either their own demise or that of their male prey. As with Lamia, The Lady of Shalott, floating open-mouthed to her doom, and Ophelia, heading for her watery grave, all got multiple treatments.
The great surrealist, Salvador Dali, for whom sex and death were bread and butter, never mistook the profound psychological intensity in Pre-Raphaelite art for sentimentality – as some have. He greatly admired Millais’ Ophelia, from 1852. Dressed up in Shakespearean reference, it is nevertheless the depiction of a woman committing suicide and an exploration of female sexuality.
Ophelia is ecstatic at the moment her life expires. The sexual charge in the picture is heightened by the abundant, competing natural world of the river bank that, portrayed with almost photographic faithfulness, surrounds this woman not only resigned to but aroused by her fate. The depiction of an offering to a greater natural order, Ophelia remains the masterpiece at the heart of Pre-Raphaelitism.
Waterhouse, on seeing the picture exhibited in 1886, was inspired to paint his Lady of Shalott. Drawn from Tennyson’s poem, a mythical lady, cursed never to look out of her window, chooses to sacrifice her life for a glimpse of Lancelot and then float to Camelot in a barge to face her doom.
In an allegory of sexual longing and capitulation, Waterhouse freezes Tennyson’s story at the moment the lady is about to release the chain that ties her barge. And so he anticipates the abandonment of the rational self to subconscious sexual impulses.
The new Royal Academy Waterhouse exhibition follows in the wake of a popular William Holman Hunt show in Manchester last year and Tate Britain’s blockbuster Millais show the year before. After years in the wilderness, the Pre-Raphaelites are again in the spotlight, and quite rightly. It’s not just for the seductive prettiness of their pictures that these artists should be commended. It’s their enduring insight into the human condition that makes them truly great.
By Franny Moyle
Published: 5:23PM BST 17 Jun 2009