Dyce, Study for a mural for All Saints, Margaret Street, London (1849, V&A)

Fagence Cooper’s book starts with a brief, informative introduction. One which isn’t trenched in detail, and may reference some of the more well known anecdotes but doesn’t alienate serious readership by harping on them (thank goodness!) Her writing style is accessible, informative and most enjoyable, and the overall presentation of the book is a delight. The photos are beautiful, and are all / nearly all sourced from the V&A archives.

The first chapter introduces us to the brotherhood with a series of less well known photos of the main characters. It also spends some time discussing the precursors to the PRB, which may be less well known to some readership. Names such as Dyce and Overbeck are mentioned, and an interesting example is made of Dyce’s Study for a mural for All Saints, Margaret Street, London (1849, V&A) with Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin (1450 – 54, Louvre). Cooper identifies Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin as being an image which made much impact on both Hunt and Rossetti. This image, whilst being Marian, is structured very much like a host of angels. A ministration.

The V&A website has this description of Dyce’s study:

This is a design for a mural at the east end of the church of All Saints in Margaret Street, London, which has since been painted over. It represents three stages in the Life of Christ: the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Glory of God in heaven. The Virgin Mary is here modelled by Isabella Cay, the painter’s sister. Veneration of the Virgin was characteristic of Roman Catholicism but treated with extreme suspicion in Anglican circles in Victorian Britain. The centrality of the Virgin in this design thus reflects the High Church sympathies of All Saints’ congregation. The colour scheme of the work is also unusual at this date. Its clear blues, pinks and greens, and the prominent gold haloes, were derived from early Renaissance altarpieces. They contrasted with the much darker palette of conventional ‘Old Master’ religious subjects then prevalent. The design is in an original frame that the artist is believed to have been designed.

Cooper concurs with a general reading of the work which suggests it ‘is bound up with the intense mid-Victorian debates about ritual in the Anglican Church’.[1] Cooper also pivots her idea around the work being Marian, therefore Catholic and states that ‘Roman Catholic veneration of the Virgin was treated with extreme suspicion by the majority of Anglicans in Victorian Britain’.[2] Cooper, and others, suggest that Marian themes were what ‘caused a stir among the critics’, and I suggest this not the whole of the story. Marian images, such as Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849 – 1850, Tate) do exhibit ‘Art Catholic’, but it should be noted that many such Marian images produced by the Pre-Raphaelites are often (sometimes by virtue of narrative) interlinked with images of the angelic. This is not just the case in Annunciation subjects either, but appears in later Rossettian works such as La Bella Mano (1875, Bancroft Collection, Delaware). Cooper quite rightly traces the line of artistic pursuit for pre-Reformation back to Dyce.

The next area discusses the influence of Ruskin providing some detail of the now infamous reception of Millais Carpenter’s Shop (1850, Tate). Where this text is interesting though, is in reference to Millais’ reflections in later life, where Millais claimed he refused to read Modern Painters, claiming he had his own ideas’.[3] None the less, Cooper deftly draws out the key points of Pre-Raphaelite engagement with Ruskin’s ideas on regards to nature, religion, morality, reality, and naturalism. A particularly fine observation is found in the sentence ‘The ‘innocent eye’ of the camera, Ruskin’s injunction to ‘go to nature…rejecting nothing, selecting nothing’ which Cooper sees as a youthful desire to ‘start from scratch’.[4]

Rossetti, The Raven (1848, V&A)

In ‘Early Works’ Cooper includes some marvellous designs such as Millais, A Head of a Woman (1836, V&A) and Rossetti’s angelic filled The Raven (1848, V&A). (There were three drawings produced). The figures ‘emerge out of the air’…and are a ‘strange conjunction of the real and the supernatural in Poe’s work’ and also in Rossetti’s. ‘The angularity of the figures, underlined by the jagged strokes of the angels’ hair, became a common feature in the drawings of all the PRB around this time’; the type of drawing which is treated in an essay Colin Cruise produced for the 2012 Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites.[5]

‘Nevermore’ is a kind of limbo, an ungainly spiritual word which Cooper suggests was a fascination of both Rossetti and Burne-Jones; that of the ‘natural and the spiritual worlds – epiphanies, annunciations, metamorphoses’. Cooper stressed the division of lovers as being a key proponent of this theme, and introduces other key inspirations such as Keats poetry, before professing on to make shape of how these interests combined to make the ‘Brotherhood’ come into being.

Essentially the next section references the formulation and some of the criticism levied at the first works exhibited by the Pre-Raphaelites. This leads onto a section where the medium of wood engraving is shown to be a useful tool for communicating ideas to a wider public. It is the engravings which remain more true to Pre-Raphaelite ideals than the paintings, and ironically, show a greater union between the artists in question – particularly when it comes to Millais who is so often criticised for his departure or his succession to the establishment, which Cooper mentions in Chapter Two.

Chapter Two elaborates on Millais, providing details and sketches of powerful early works e.g. The Order of Release, 1746 (1852 – 1853,Tate) and My Second Sermon (1870 – 1886, V&A). Thankfully, Cooper unravels some of the damage Bubbles (1886, Lady Lever) has done to Millais’ reputation, showing quite clearly that he was not responsible for its commercial usage. Cooper proceeds to examine or rather introduce Millais’ portraiture, a fine example of which can be seen in Millais’ Lord Lytton (1876, V&A).

Hunt, The Ponte Vecchio (1867, V&A)

Cooper shows Hunt to be mostly the man history has recorded him as being: a fastidious, religious, well-travelled, committed artist. The rarely shown The Ponte Vecchio (1867, V&A) is a beautiful image, although I disagree with Cooper’s rather biographical reading of the work.

Moving on to ‘Rossetti and his Circle’ Cooper takes on the wider associates of the circle and starts to factor in artists like Burne-Jones and Morris which she takes on further in the proceeding chapter. Cooper moves the conversation on to medievalism, making reference to paintings like van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage (1434, National Gallery), and making pretty references to Burne-Jones pilgrimage to the once burial site of Fair Rosamund, Henry II’s mistress who was murdered by Queen Eleanor. There is a little indulgence in the reading of Burne-Jones as elegiac prophet, full of visions (or possibly youthful poetic hyperbole). The key points Cooper makes here are: the growing, shifting themes and practices of the individuals involved, their collecting practices, their commercial projects, their artistic aims, and their literary and artistic influences.

Chapter Three, ‘Towards Aestheticism’, opens with an explanation about the change in Pre-Raphaelite taste for Venetian or Italianate themes, colours, shapes, and styles. Cooper includes a sizeable reproduction of Rossetti’s The Borgia Family (1863, V&A).

Rossetti, The Borgia Family (1863, V&A).

The typical correlation between Buchanan’s ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ and Rossetti’s downward spiral of ill health is relayed (I do think this is a generic over simplification, much repeated in Pre-Raphaelite literature), but none the less, is useful in positioning Rossetti outside of exhibitions, and in some ways outside of the world of his artist peers. Certainly toward the final years of his life, Rossetti was increasingly isolated and often quoted ‘health’ or ‘work’ as reasons why he could not travel or dine or visit with friends. Burne-Jones describes him as ‘very violent at times’, and it is important that we do not deify this artist. Clearly Rossetti was a troubled man, and I think Cooper does a good job in allowing the reader to perceive his humanity, and not get swept up in the fantasy or myth of genius cult artistic figure that was and remains in the name ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’.

Bocca Baciata (1859, MFA, Boston)

The ‘unhealthiness’ of Rossetti’s physical body was manifest in his artistic body. Cooper suggests that Burne-Jones also suffered from the self-same accusations for effeteness, painting women were too overtly sexualized. The Edinburgh Review of 1899 described Burne-Jones’ women as being ‘tainted at the fountainhead with the moral and physical unhealthy of instincts prematurely developed’.[6] Swinburne’s tarnish seems to have marred the reception of some paintings, not least because his name was considered genius, laced with immorality. Swinburne’s own poetry was banned at one point. Bullen sees the poems Swinburne dedicated to Burne-Jones presents the women figures as being strong alluring creatures, whilst the men often appear emasculated.[7] Increasingly the images of male or female figures become androgynous, but as is so often the case this is immediately assigned to the aesthetic school of art. Whilst one cannot deny the existence or movement that was Aestheticism, it is increasingly apparent that the dialogues surrounding Pre-Raphaelite art move swiftly from medievalism to aestheticism. Rossetti’s major works, e.g. Bocca Baciata (1859, MFA, Boston) or Beata Beatrix (1864 – 1870, Tate) are frequently cited as being examples of the change in direction which was centred around the disintegration of narrative.

The ‘unhealthiness’ of the body within this circle of artists and writers was realised when Solomon was arrested in 1875. Solomon’s The Bride, Bridegroom & Sad Love (1865, V&A) refers to the social obligation of marriage, but also references classical sculpture – a growing interest in the Aesthetic circles. Burne-Jones, for example, spent much time looking at classical sculptures in the British Museum. His attention to drapery is evidence of such a practice, and can be seen in his sketchbooks and painting, e.g. The Pygmalion series begun in 1867 and most likely finished in the year 1878.

Solomon, The Bride, Bridegroom & Sad Love (1865, V&A)

Cooper places Burne-Jones at the forefront of the new aesthetic approach to art, and sees him as working within the framework of Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance. This association often leads to aesthetic readings of Burne-Jones’ works, e.g. those of The Golden Stairs (1880, Tate) which proclaim a condition of music in the most delightful Paterian terms. ‘The sensation of beauty was paramount’.[8] Transience and ephemerality are all inter connected with the concept of Aestheticism, and Cooper attempts to re-connect the ideas and practice of Whistler with that of Burne-Jones through the assignation of musical references. She quotes how Whistler painted the instant ‘when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry as with a veil’ and in doing so opens up a ‘connection quite explicit’ with Burne-Jones The Ladies and Death (1860, V&A). Certainly reading the work through an Aesthetic lens does yield such readings and meanings. The word ‘veil’ has a variety of meanings with into it, from those of a more sensual nature to those which substantiate a more theological reading. It would be foolhardy to get carried away with these ideas even if there is value in them for I do not think Burne-Jones was an aesthete, and I do not think he perceived himself in such terms. Cooper does pick up on the theme of other Pre-Raphaelite works which have a similar absence of concrete meaning, e.g. Millais’ beautiful etching Summer Indolence (1861, V&A) or Hunt’s Il Dolce Far Niente (1866, Forbes Collection) (albeit Cooper doesn’t mention Hunt’s work). It is nice to read about the works of Burne-Jones shoulder to shoulder with Whistler, rather than seeing the Pre-Raphaelites as gaudy, sentimental works or worse, ones of purely sensual vulgarity. Cooper’s reading does make sense within the parameter’s she presents, and when you compare the themes of the aforementioned Millais or Burne-Jones’ pieces, it is a natural progression to include those ‘Symphonies in White’ produced by Whistler in the 1860s.

Millais, Summer Indolence (1861, V&A

[1] Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Pre-Raphaelite Art in the Victoria & Albert Museum (London: V&A Publications, 2003) page 12.

[2] Cooper, page 13.

[3] Cooper, page 15.

[4] Cooper, page 18.

[5] Cooper, page 19.

[6] Cooper, page 46.

[7] Cooper, page 47. Refers to J.B. Bullen’s The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism (Gloucestershire: Clarendon Press 1998).

[8] Cooper, page 48.