Sir John Everett Millais, Bt ‘Mariana’, 1851
Millais, Mariana (1850, Tate)

The Natural World was intrinsic to early Pre-Raphaelite works. Hunt and Millais both took to painting outdoors, and their canvasses reflected this light filled, vivid approach to their art. Other artists, like the nearly but never Pre-Raphaelite Charles Allston Collins followed suit. Collins, The Good Harvest of 1854 (1855, V&A) is characteristic of the approach, as is Millais’, A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge (1852, Private Collection).

The passing of the seasons and the transience of life can often be detected in these paintings, and perhaps goes some way to explain why Millais took to painting many images of children (and actually, it could also explain why youth was such a preoccupation for Burne-Jones). Intense concern with conveying the truth of nature was typical of Ruskinian thinking but one which soon ebbed away from artists like Burne-Jones. Morris, with his wallpaper designs, is one example where we can trace the thread of early Pre-Raphaelite intentions. By the late 70s Beauty was the new preoccupation. Cooper’s ‘highlight’ page upon Burne-Jones’ The Flower Book is tantalising. Begun in 1882, the series of designs amount to ‘an intensely personal group of watercolours’.[1] Using flower names as his starting point, Burne-Jones declared he wanted ‘the name and the picture to be one soul together’.[2] Even the titles are personal, and in some cases dare I say, angelic. Where he could have chosen the Lily of the Valley, Burne-Jones instead chose Ladder of Heaven. His Golden Greeting shows a women, encapsulated within a globe which is described by Cooper as being ‘heaven’. The concept of the spheres, of boundaries, of veiled worlds rears its head once again.

Whistler, Rotherhithe (Wapping) (1860, V&A)


John Roddam Spencer Stanhope ‘Thoughts of the Past’, exhibited 1859
Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past (1859, Tate).

Cooper moves on in Chapter Five, to The Painter of Modern Life (a reference to Baudelaire’s essay of the same name). This chapter is fascinating, not least for its reproductions which inclusion of some less well known images, e.g. Boyd Houghton’s Treasure (1862, V&A), as well as the wonderful The Bridge of Sighs by Millais (1858, V&A). I am not certain I agree with Cooper’s reading of Millais’ etching; she says the woman’s future is ‘seduction, leading to prostitution’ whereas I would be more inclined to say that she is at risk of suicide having already succumbed or been forced into prostitution / seduction. Bridges, such as Waterloo, were well known suicide spots. This brings me on to another image which Cooper doesn’t mention, but did draw my attention to via a Whistler etching. Cooper discusses Whistler’s ‘studies of the low life’ and in particular his etching Rotherhithe (Wapping) (1860, V&A) which screams out not just the Pre-Raphaelite interest with modern social decline, but a specific direct link to Spencer Stanhope’s, Thoughts of the Past which was exhibited in 1859, i.e. a year before Whistler’s etching.

Millais, Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849-1850, Makins Collection)

This section predominantly functions on showing two things, a) modernity and social commentary, and b) the power of the illustration. Cooper goes on to show how masterfully Millais capitalised on the print world for novels such as Trollope’s Orley Farm serialisation, in 1862. Social decline, religious trials, domestic scenes, or lost loves all feature.

Chapter Six progresses with literary themes. Cooper demonstrates how Millais, amongst others, turned to Shakespeare as well as other lesser known (in the nineteenth century) authors like Dante or Keats. Millais’ Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849-1850, Makins Collection) is an interesting example, which Cooper describes as interpreting Ariel’s line ‘On the bat’s back do I fly’ in a ‘most literal manner’ but I suggest there is something more subtle here which can be illuminated upon when held up to the angelic lens.[3]

There are two curious references to angels in The Tempest. Just after the luring of Ferdinand, the lured Ferdinand encounters Prospero and Miranda, the latter of whom instantly falls for him. Thus (this is some way into Act I, Scene II):


Silence! One word more

Shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee. What,

An advocate for an imposter? Hush,

Thou think’st there is no more such shapes as he,

Having seen but him and Caliban. Foolish wench,

To th’ most of men this is a Caliban

And they to him are angels.


My affections

Are then most humble. I have no ambition

To see a goodlier man.

The angelic in this instance is both a term of absolute praise (contrasted with absolute contempt in the form of ‘Caliban’) but is also shown to be relative: if Miranda had seen more than two other living souls then she wouldn’t find Ferdinand as beautiful as an angel.  In fact, she’d see him as other men do: pretty commonplace. This is an odd sentiment, not least because Miranda has also seen her father, Prospero. That he should exclude himself from her conception of beauty is interesting.

The other occasion is Act II, Scene I where the idea of an angel is again invoked around the presence of Ariel but not actually of him:

Enter Ariel invisible, with music and song

Oval painting in ornate gold frame showing a winged sprite
Millais, Sketch for Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849, Sudley House).


(to GONZALO) My master through his art foresees the danger

That you, his friend, are, and sends me forth—

For else his project dies—to keep them living.

(sings in GONZALO ’s ear)

While you here do snoring lie,

Open-eyed conspiracy

His time doth take.

If of life you keep a care,

Shake off slumber and beware.

Awake, awake!


Then let us both be sudden.


(waking and seeing them)

Now, good angels preserve the king!

Again, the angelic isn’t really applied to Ariel but he does seem to indirectly inspire the thought on both occasions where the term ‘angel’ appears. There is also the slightest of echoes from Psalm 91, a most significant angelic psalm. It is also interesting to note that the rejection by William Wethered (the dealer) was because Ariel was not ‘sylph-like’. The transition between fairy, spectre, and angel is an often blurred one.

One of the most sensual literary inspired works is by Millais. His Mariana (1850, Tate) is a beautiful work which dwells on ‘’the woman question’ emerging in mid-Victorian debates’ at this time.[4] Interestingly, the ‘altar’ upon which she has been working at her tapestry is overseen by an angel. (Ruskin describes the other table in the painting as an ‘idolatrous toilet table’, which suggests not only are there two altars but invites the reading of a misused altar). I agree with Cooper when she writes ‘the clean lines of the drawing, unencumbered by the decorative details of the finished painting, have a more direct emotional impact on the viewer’.[5]

Other thematically related works are alluded to, e.g. The Lady of Shalott (a subject which Rossetti bemoaned to Hunt that ‘You for instance have appropriated the Lady of Shalott, which was the one I cared for most of all’).[6] Cooper also quotes the delicious Tennyson criticism of Hunt’s etching ‘My dear Hunt, I never said that the young woman’s hair was flying all over the shop’ to which Hunt replied ‘No, but you never said it wasn’t’.[7] These powerful designs and engravings are well known now, but it is good to look at them again with fresh eyes, and a fresh voice to comment upon them.

William Holman Hunt ‘The Lady of Shalott, engraved by J. Thompson’, published 1857
Hunt, The Lady of Shalott (1857, Tate).

[1] Cooper, page 62.

[2] Cooper, page 62.

[3] I would like to thank Lucian Waugh for his thoughts and findings on this idea.

[4] Cooper, page 74.

[5] Cooper, page 76.

[6] Cooper, page 76.

[7] Cooper, page 77.