3rd October 2018: Pre-Raphaelites - their Lives, Lovers and Legacy

Wednesday 3rd October was the first meeting of the Wye Historical Society for the 2018/19 season. Delia Taylor spoke on the Pre-Raphaelites - their Lives, Lovers and Legacy. The group of artists which made up the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood met at the Royal Academy of Arts under Joshua Reynolds. The group existed for five years from 1848 to 1853 and their main members were John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). At that time Raphael (1483-1520) was thought to be one of the greatest painters and students were taught to emulate his style of placing the model in the middle of the canvas with an Arcadian scene in the background. The Brotherhood, however, thought this style was boring. They wanted to paint like Botticelli who came before Raphael and depicted nature in fine detail.

The group had a series of lovers, many of whom had been models for their paintings. Most famous is Elizabeth Siddall, wife of Rossetti. She died after an overdose of laudanum; in his grief Rossetti buried a book of unpublished poems with her but four years later he regretted his decision and had them retrieved by digging up the body. Fanny Waugh was Hunt's first wife; after she died he married Fanny's sister Edith. Fanny Cornforth was Rossetti's lover after Lizzie Siddall and he later had an affair with William Morris' wife Jane. Alexa Wilding was a favourite model of Rossetti's who he found walking in the street. Millais famously caused scandal after having an affair with Ruskin's wife Effie while he was painting Ruskin's portrait in Scotland. She later married Millais and had eight children.

Throughout the talk Delia Taylor showed us images of a range of pre-Raphaelite works: 'Our English Coasts' showing Fairlight, Hastings; 'The Light of the World' which now hangs in St Paul's Cathedral; 'The Awakening Conscience'; and 'A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary', all by Hunt. Rossetti's works shown were 'Astarte Syriaca', 'A Vision of Fiammetta' and 'Veronica Veronese'. Millais began painting seriously when he was nine years old. His parents saw his talent and moved to London to further it. His celebrated works included 'Ophelia', which took him eleven hours a day for five months. Lizzie Siddall who modelled had to lie in a bath heated by candles but she contracted pneumonia because she was in the bath so long. Millais' other most famous work is the portrait of his son 'Bubbles' originally titled 'A Child's World', which became the Pears soap ad.

As well as the main artists there were minor members such as Rossetti's brother William, who created a journal called The Germ, and several important followers such as Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Margaret Agnes Rope, who specialised in stained glass, and William Morris, who was inspired by the group to create his world famous wallpaper and tapestries. The Pre-Raphaelites had a direct influence on the new style of Art Nouveau in the 1890s and on artists and craftsmen such as Mackintosh and Lalique. Delia Taylor concluded that the Pre-Raphaelites had the biggest influence on international art of any British movement before or since.

Ellie Morris