Hunt, The Light of the World (1853 – 1854, Keble College)

Religion, Death and the Spirit are central to Cooper’s penultimate chapter. Her opening line states that ‘Religious images were at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite story’ due to the theme of Sacred Art offering the artists a means of applying a ‘fresh vision to conventional subjects, and for critics, they were a way of measuring the distance between this new school and the Establishment’.[1] Immediately referencing Hunt as the primary mover of religious iconography, Cooper places him as ‘the High Priest of Pre-Raphaelitism’[2] and makes this point explicit by stating that an estimated seven million people joined ‘the hushed lines of viewers’ to see ‘the carefully lit exhibition for their encounter with the figure of Christ’ in a replica of The Light of the World (1853 – 1854, Keble College) which toured around the British Empire. I particularly liked Cooper’s statement that ‘there was always the underlying fascination with the relationship between the natural and the supernatural worlds, revealed in pictures of spectres and saints’.[3]

Millais, A Ghost Appearing at a Wedding Ceremony (1853, V&A)

Cooper makes it clear that Hunt’s ascension to role of High Priest was not an instant one; even The Light of the World was subject to criticism for its lack of beauty and heavy symbolism. Ruskin’s voice of objectivity once again seemed to help, and going on the works continued popularity it cannot be denied the critics had it wrong. Very wrong. The work was the most popular print of the nineteenth, and if I remember correctly, even into the earliest years of the twentieth century.

Millais, like Hunt, also did well out of religious engravings. Working with The Dalziel brothers he produced a series of exquisite designs for The Parables of Our Lord. Originally seen in Good Words magazine, the first twelve were then produced as a gift book. Millais’ religious inclination was described by his son as ‘though he seldom to church…Christianity was with him a living force by which is actions were habitually controlled’. [4] It is hard to correlate those two seeming contradictions, but I am prepared to accept them; I think it is possible to define oneself by Christian virtues, even if one does not attend services on a regular basis. One of my favourite prints is reproduced, The Lost Piece of Silver (1863, V&A) and the praise it received is also included. Cooper reads the work, and that of Hunt’s as evidence for both artists exploration of ‘the scriptural idea of light as an emblem of revelation and salvation’. Bowdler has shown Millais’ career embraced the idea of Ars longa, vita brevis, and Cooper endorses this view with her assertion that Millais’ ‘exploration of spiritual subjects went much further than the biblical illustrations he prepared for the Dalziels’.[5] To add weight to her view, Cooper mentions St. Agnes of Intercession (1850, V&A) and A Ghost Appearing at a Wedding Ceremony (1853, V&A). The spectral figure of A Ghost is reminiscent of the angelic visions in Rossetti’s The Raven (1848, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton). I did sigh slightly at the reading of Married for Love (1853, British Museum) which was offered as a possible reference to the ‘blighted marriage of Ruskin and Effie’. A little trite, although I can see why this was included.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘Paolo and Francesca da Rimini’, 1855
Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1855, Tate)

Images of ‘beyond the grave’ were a ‘favourite’ and Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel is a fine example of this. Another response to Poe: Rossetti wrote how he wanted to ‘give utterance to the yearning the loved one in heaven’.[6] The spiritual and physical sphere are treated by all Pre-Raphaelite artists and each comes up against the notions of transience and immateriality. Heaven or Idyllic embowered spaces also become a key function of this other wordliness. One fascinating artist who is mentioned again in this chapter, is Solomon. Whilst his use of religious imagery which stems from a Judaeo Christian heritage) is often a trigger for less conventional imagery, he still produced outrageously beautiful and Sacred pieces of art, e.g. The Mystery Of Faith (no date listed, Lady Lever). Solomon is so frequently read in terms of sexual bias, and his image is Pavilion over me was Love (a work only known via Frederick Hollyer’s 1878 photograph, V&A) one which supports readings of sensuality as well a growing Pre-Raphaelite tendency toward androgynous figures. Cooper makes a wonderful and sensible observation that the work echoes that of Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca da Rimini watercolour (1855, Tate). Idealisation and religious devotion all subvert in Solomon’s hands. ‘Solomon appropriates Rossetti’s devices for constructing the image of the ideal woman, unattainable but adored, and transfers these onto a young man’. [7] One of his most controversial works, Amor Sacramentum (1868) is now lost, and we have only a Hollyer photograph to inform us about the picture Wilde once owned. The most fascinating detail of this Bacchic image is the angel within the lantern. Cooper presents the work within the terms of Pater’s Renaissance text, written a year after the painting was produced. Male desire and religious sensuality are certainly present in many of Solomon’s works.

Solomon, Amor Sacramentum (1868, Lost).

Ford Madox Brown also produced prints. He was commercially savvy enough to insist upon the option of producing a full scale painting later on, should he wish to. Brown’s Elijah and the Widow’s Son (1868, V&A) which was produced for the Dalziels Bible Gallery is one example of this approach. The Bible Gallery was a failure due to its eventual completion being ‘twenty years too late’. [8]

Burne-Jones on the other hand managed to cash in on the boom of church redecoration, as did Morris and Co., and architects such as G.F. Bodley. Ecclesiastical textiles, stained glass, new churches and restorations were all funded by private sponsors. Rossetti contributed many designs to Morris and Co. (until there was a falling out in 1874 over the running of the firm). Burne-Jones stayed with Morris right up until Morris’ death in 1896. His design The Good Shepherd (1857, V&A) was received so positively that Burne-Jones’ ‘reputation as a designer of stained glass’ was established.[9]

Cooper discusses Burne-Jones’ use of line and his classical drapery, particularly when discussing The Last Judgement cartoon for St. Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (photograph 1896, V&A). Many of his designs are an overwhelming rejection of naturalism, and they tend to look in two directions: back to Byzantine art with his ranks of angels, and his fondness for the 5th and 6th century Venetian mosaics, and forwards to the modernity of the fin de siècle.

Burne-Jones, Adoration of the Magi (1888, V&A)

In 1881 a project offered Burne-Jones scope to decorate a chapel with ‘hierarchies and symbols and gods’.[10] St. Paul’s Within the Walls (1872- 1876) offered Burne-Jones the chance to decorate the apse. His first design was Heavenly Jerusalem, where ‘he imagined Christ enthroned before the walls of Heaven, flanked by his archangels; the niche where Satan once sat at Christ’s right hand is empty’.[11] The mosaic was a success, and he began on another angelic design Annunciation (1886 – 1894). The Tree of Life (1886 – 1894) design is most innovative. In Burne-Jones’ hands the crucifixion has become an organic symbol, one which celebrates renewal and life. Burne-Jones described it in typically low key but positive terms when he said it was ‘as much as anything I have ever done’.[12] The references to the Annunciation (and to the judgement) are deeply embedded, and this is further evidence of the focus upon the angelic body which was not only integral to the Pre-Raphaelites but was and remains integral to the ‘Mystical part’ of Christianity which Burne-Jones responded to. [13] Cooper goes on to mention the beautiful Memorial for Laura Lyttleton (1886, V&A) which has a stunning highly aesthetic looking peacock on it. Cooper is right when she describes Burne-Jones as ‘reinventing conventional Christian images so that his generation could experience them afresh’.[14] Whilst she sees the grave as being transformed into a ‘site of beauty’, much like the Crucifixion was in his hands, she omits the more complex identification of the angelic (not that she should proclaim it, after all that is my interest, not hers).The works of Lippi, as I mention earlier, connect peacock feathers and angels, and it is not too far removed an idea when one looks at this, and at Burne-Jones’ textures within the design and the final tapestry of the Adoration of the Magi (1888, V&A). Lilies, roses, homage to van Eyck are all recognised and conveyed (as well as reference to Ecce’s Ancilla Domini! (1849, Tate) in the flames under the angel’s feet). . So pleased was he with the result of this design, that a final watercolour copy was made that now resides at BMAG.

Burne-Jones, Angeli Ministrantes designs (1877-1878, and translated into tapestries in the 1890s).

Burne-Jones’ faith is often as baffling as his symbolism. When asked about his literal understanding or acceptance of the nativity, he replied ‘It is too beautiful not to be true’.[15] Incarnation, immateriality, non-specific places and times, are all part of Burne-Jones’ essentially Anglican presentation of Christian ideas. ‘His angelic figure were just as real as his saints and sinners’ and he ‘demonstrated the interconnectedness of this world and the next by filling his pictures with angels: cherubs with chubby legs, stern warriors guarding the gate of the Garden of Eden’.[16] Burne-Jones’ images are absolute littered with angels, perhaps because every morning he ‘hoped to hear the angels sound their trumpets’. [17] Cooper suggests this was the impetus for the Angeli Laudantes and Angeli Ministrantes designs (1877-1878, and translated into tapestries in the 1890s). Burne-Jones was a significant contributor to the recreation of the ‘pre-Reformation church, with incense, bells and pools of coloured life’.[18] His mission was an angelic one, he brought the hosts of angels to the Anglican Church of the nineteenth century.

The Love Song
Burne-Jones’ Le Chant d’Amour (1868 – 1877, Met)

Cooper’s last chapter opens with Burne-Jones’ The Mill (1870 – 1882) as she draws out the sense of saint or revenant so often found within his work. She notes the halo, and the idyllic setting (which has some connotations of Stanhope’s, The Waters of Lethe (1879 – 1880, Manchester). Music and dancing are and were seen as having ‘no counterpart in the actually existing order of things’, a bit dare I say like angels.[19] Ambiguity, abstraction, non-narrative ambiguity, and allegorical potential all excite the viewer. His interest in music is present in his early designs, but so is the angelic. As Cooper states, ‘Burne-Jones blurs the boundaries between the sacred and secular, so the winged figure could represent an angel’, albeit she feels the emphasis was likely to have been toward the music (and not therefore toward the angel).[20] Rossetti’s Palace of Art (1857, V&A) which Burne-Jones admired, has ‘subverted’ the angelic so that Cecilia is represented in a state of voluptuous abandon, with her hair loosened and her throat exposed’.[21] Burne-Jones’ Le Chant d’Amour (1868 – 1877, Met) certainly seems to be an ex tension of this use of the angelic, although Cooper once again falls upon the more comfortable aesthetic reading of the work, as with The Mill. Pianos are interestingly referred to by Burne-Jones as being ‘the very altar of homes’, and what better place to include an angel or two when decorating them?[22] This chapter is very brief, and is mostly given to recognising Burne-Jones’ interest in sound and mood and rhythm, and how that gives weight to readings of his works through an Aesthetic lens. Cooper is certainly correct to make these connections, and Burne-Jones’ legacy would indicate that (although it is a shame Cooper stops shy of mentioning how or to whom Burne-Jones’ work was important). However, I suggest Aestheticism is only one aspect of his complex iconography.

Rossetti’s Palace of Art (1857, Tate version)

To conclude:

As Cooper makes clear in her summation, the V&A’s Pre-Raphaelite collection is one of the Museum’s best kept secrets. Her main motivation for the book was to have created an overview to their wonderful collection, due it often being dispersed within different rooms, e.g. sideboards and glass.

Her celebration of the works is based upon:

Their own celebration of the decorative arts.

Their challenge to beauty

Their affection for the past.

Their personal relationships, good and bad.

The book opens up many more lines of enquiry, which I am sure will be found within other as yet unearthed archives. Cooper’s tone and knowledge make the book an accessible and informative read. Even if some readings or information are a little worn, the format of the book dictates that it would be necessary to appeal to all levels of interest. As such, I think this is book is a success.

Stanhope, The Waters of Lethe (1879 – 1880, Manchester)

[1] Cooper, page 136.

[2] Caroline Fox, 1860, quoted by Jeremy Maas in Holman Hunt and the Light of the World (London: Scolar Press 1984), page 92

[3] Cooper, page 136.

[4] Cooper, page 138.

[5] Cooper, page 138.

[6] Cooper, page 140.

[7] Cooper, page 142.

[8] Cooper, page 144.

[9] Cooper, page 149.

[10] Cooper, page 150 in reference to Burne-Jones’ letter to Ruskin, quoted by Richard Dorment in ‘Burne-Jones’ Roman Mosaics’, Burlington Magazine, February 1978, CXX, page 73.

[11] See Burne-Jones’ Model of Heavenly Jerusalem design for apse (1881 – 1885, V&A)

[12] Mary Lago, Burne-Jones Talking: His Conversations 1865 – 1898 preserved by his studio assistant Thomas Rooke (London: John Murray Publishers Ltd , 1982), page 22

[13] Letter from Burne-Jones to Frances Horner, June 1886, quoted in Wildman and Christian, eds., Edward Burne-Jones Victorian Artist Dreamer Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalogue (New York, 1998)  page 243.

[14] Cooper, page 153.

[15] Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials, Vol II (London: MacMillan, 1904) page 209.

[16] Cooper, page 158.

[17] Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials, Vol II (London) page 209.

[18] Cooper, page 158

[19] Cooper, page 161. The Times reported this on 8th May, 1882

[20] Cooper, page 161.

[21] Cooper, page 161.

[22] Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials, Vol II (London) page 111.