The Director’s Foreword in ‘Pre-Raphaelite Drawing’ by Colin Cruise, sets out the premise of the Pre-Raphaelite drawing exhibition entitled The Poetry of Drawing, which appeared in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in 2011. The then director, Rita McLean (who left the gallery in 2012) described the exhibition as ‘the most comprehensive survey of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper to date’ and she was right. The exhibition was exquisite, not least because it included some rarely seen works and ones which had never been published or exhibited before, some of which are reproduced here. It was also a wonderful setting as Birmingham holds many Pre-Raphaelite works and is an important centre for Pre-Raphaelite research. This is not a new phenomenon either, as the Corporation of Birmingham purchased Rossetti’s La Donna della Finestra and The Boat of Love (a curiously angelic image) from Rossetti’s posthumous studio sale in 1883. The collection continued in the 1890s and then between 1903 and 1906 the Museum bought, by subscription, over a thousand Pre-Raphaelite drawings from the collection of Pre-Raphaelite associate and dealer Charles Fairfax Murray.[1]

The catalogue for this exhibition is written by Colin Cruise, Reader at Aberystwyth University and a great Pre-Raphaelite scholar. Cruise also guest curated the exhibition and the astute groupings of the works is telling evidence of his astute eye. He commences the catalogue with an introduction to Pre-Raphaelite ‘Drawings and Drawing’. The accompanying image to this chapter is a detail from the delightfully mournful Phyllis and Demophoon (1870, Birmingham) by Burne-Jones.

Burne-Jones, Phyllis and Demophoon (1870, BMAG)

Cruise introduces the exhibition by saying that much reappraisal of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has been the done since the 1984 Tate exhibition. He’s right. The first half of the twentieth century was critically silent on the Brotherhood’s achievements but over time greater regard and consideration of their works has occurred. The misinterpretations of their works as academic and not expressive or avant-garde meant they were nearly written out of history of modern art. Cruise ends his first paragraph strongly declaring that ‘the Pre-Raphaelites were part of a pan-European revolt against academic conventions that had suppressed originality, creativity and experimentation, particularly in the branches of art that dealt with the representation of the human fire’.[1]

Cruise’s approach consolidates this reluctant early twentieth century thinking into a more refined and measured one, one which incorporates the luxury of the time lapse and the numerous Pre-Raphaelite research and exhibitions which have taken place since 1984. He starts, however, with an outline of the Royal Academy’s drawing practice, a useful introduction or refresher for those who are less familiar with the R.A’s traditional focus and training. In this climate of focus and attention upon landscape and classical sculpture, Cruise introduces the young, vibrant figures of Rossetti, Hunt and Millais, describing them as ‘among the most talented and imaginative artists of the century’.[2] A short précis of the other relevant artists and Pre-Raphaelite contributors allows the argument of ‘The Importance of Drawing’ to commence. The central argument of the book is based upon the importance of drawing to not only the Pre-Raphaelites but Pre-Raphaelitism more generally, in the development and overhaul of long standing, yet staid, artistic practices. Cruise tackles the misapprehensions of contemporary critics such as Reverend S.C. Malan, upon the Pre-Raphaelite ability to draw:

The style, as it is called, of Medieval (or even of Pre-Raphaelite) artists…Their wry headed figures in buckram, their glaring colours, their utter carelessness about light and shade, their trees like brooms or cabbage-tops, their hills like sugar-loaves, their houses out of perspective, may, possibly, in their opinion, suit the kind of illustration to which they are often consecrated, but that is not DRAWING.[3]

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt ‘Study for ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’’, c.1849
Millais, Christ in the House of his Parents (1849, Tate)

The Pre-Raphaelite stylization was one part which exacerbated criticisms, but their ‘truth to nature’ was unprecedented and unconventional when combined. To confirm this reading, Cruise quotes Millais’ son reconstruction of the artist’s conversation with Hunt: where both men were considering not only the surface of the paper in detail but also the marks different media would make.[4] Cruise raises an interesting point when he suggests drawing is typically received as ‘provisional and private, preparatory and unfinished’.[5] This view of drawing as lesser is in some ways in opposition to the R.A.’s insistence that proficiency in drawing must be attained by any artist going forward. A successful artist would have mastered chiaroscuro, perspective and proportion through his drawing training. Cruise’s observation is nearly at risk of his previous comment ‘a pan-European revolt against academic conventions’ undermining his contention: however, both positions are true. The Pre-Raphaelites revolt stemmed from within the walls of the R.A. and only on their exceeding the knowledge learned within the those walls were the Pre-Raphaelites able to successfully stylize and fully exploit the capabilities of drawing as a medium in its own right. Cruise’s analysis of drawings extends to watercolours which is a masterly stroke. Watercolours, e.g. those produced by Rossetti, Siddal, and Burne-Jones, are such a component part of Pre-Raphaelitism but they cannot be assessed in the same manner as one would an oil: Cruise’s framework is a suitable and profitable resolution for analysis.[6] Drawing ‘offers us the most immediate contact with the artist’s imagination’ and examining the drawings of the Pre-Raphaelites allows us to understand the development of their style which in turn leads us to better appreciate and interpret the major oils, such as Millais’, Isabella (1848 – 1849, Walker Art Gallery) and Christ in the House of his Parents (1849 – 1850, Tate).[7] This approach adequately overturns the prejudices held against Pre-Raphaelite art which stem as far back as Dickens attack in Household Words (15th June 1850).

Millais, as the most conventionally trained, is the most useful artist for Cruise to commence with. He does so by remarking upon Millais’ earliest Pre-Raphaelite drawings as being self-conscious designs. The preparatory designs for Christ in the House of his Parents show an even more outrageously anti-academic style than the final image, and whilst criticism was levied at Millais no one could dispute his capacity to draw conventionally. From our century, post Surrealism and Cubism etc., Millais’ experimental drawing style is now taken for granted but back then, his stylistic draughtsmanship (of figures in particular) was described as bad and misshapen etc.[8] Rossetti’s draughtsmanship on the other hand is often criticised in various ways. Sometimes he is described as being inept, a reading which stems from Esther Wood’s 1894 survey where she described him as having an ‘imperfect technique’, whilst others see him as the most important of his generation.[9] Beatrix Potter’s diary recorded Millais’ opinion that Rossetti’s paintings were ‘rubbish’ and that he had ‘never learnt drawing and could not draw’.[10] Regardless of his drawings perceived technical ability, Cruise is right when he suggests their influence was most telling upon works by Burne-Jones and Simeon Solomon.

Rossetti, Study of Jane Morris for ‘Mnemosyne’ (1876, Private Collection)

Hunt’s drawing differed to both Millais’ and Rossetti’s style. He suffered the least criticism but then he was the least experimental in his drawing, preferring to record his pictorial ideas more permanently in paint.[11] For Hunt then, his drawing was a progression of the painting, a starting point. It was, as Cruise describes, ‘a notational form’ only.[12]

As opening observations, these comments show that the Pre-Raphaelites were developing a ‘set of attitudes to drawing that helped challenge accepted rules of representation and encouraged individuality and variety’.[13] Drawing was important to the Pre-Raphaelites, it provided them a space to experiment, a means of notation, a way of recording their lives and conversations together, an expression of friendship. Drawing was both private and public, and accordingly the results were dependent upon the motivations and intentions for the images. ‘Sometimes their experiments began and ended in drawing. In these cases – and all of the Pre-Raphaelites share this – drawing was not a stage in the development of an idea but an end in itself.’[14]

Rossetti, Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast (1852, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney).

[1] Colin Cruise, Pre-Raphaelite Drawing (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: Thames and Hudson, 2011) p. 11.

[2] Cruise, Pre-Raphaelite Drawing, p. 12.

[3] S.C. Malan, Aphorisms on Drawing (London: Longman, 1856), p. 9. Malan’s emphasis.

[4] J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (London, Methuen, 1899), vol. 1. pp. 44 – 45.

[5] Cruise, Pre-Raphaelite Drawing, p. 13.

[6] Burne-Jones Love among the Ruins was so rich in colour that when it came to be cleaned, it was treated as an oil when in fact it was a gouache. Burne-Jones had to do a second version because of this.

[7] Cruise, Pre-Raphaelite Drawing, p. 14.

[8] Interestingly, the preparatory drawing has a possible angel figure in it which does not appear in the finished oil.

Anon, ‘Pictures of the Season’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, n. 689 (1850), p. 82.

[9] Cruise, p. 18.

Esther Wood, Dante Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement (New York: Charles Scribner, 1894), p. 25.

[10] The entry is dated 5th March 1883. Beatrix Potter, The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 – 1897, ed. Leslie Linder (London: Warner, 1966), p. 31.

[11] Cruise, p. 19.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cruise, p. 20.

[14] Cruise, p. 20