Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Did Keats invent Pre-Raphaelitism?

Dinah Roe

Did Keats invent Pre-Raphaelitism? On This Day - 31 October 1795: Birth of John Keats in London

When he was a young man in the 1840s, William Holman Hunt discovered a cheap first edition of John Keats’s poems in a bargain bin labeled ‘this lot 4d.’ It seems unbelievable that the great Romantic poet who wrote ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ was so little esteemed, but until the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood came along, he was in danger of being forgotten.

Hunt identified a ‘common enthusiasm for Keats’ as the initial basis for his friendship with Gabriel Rossetti. The two men shared with Keats an interest in medievalism, a belief in the power of the imagination and a burning desire to achieve beyond their humble backgrounds. Some argue that the following 1848 letter from Gabriel to his brother William proves that the name ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ had its origins in Keats:

‘[Keats] seems to have been a glorious fellow, and says in one place (to my great delight) that, having just looked over a folio of the first and second schools of Italian painting, he has come to the conclusion that the early men surpassed even Raphael himself!’

Here is the passage from Keats’s letter (to George and Georgiana Keats) that got Gabriel so excited:

‘When I was last at Haydon’s, I looked over a book of prints … In it were comprised specimens of the first and second age in Art in Italy. I do not think I ever had a greater treat, out of Shakespeare; full of romance and the most tender feeling; magnificence of drapery beyond every thing I ever saw, not excepting Raphael’s, — but grotesque to a curious pitch; yet still making up a fine whole, even finer to me than more accomplished works, as there was left so much room for imagination.’ (16 Dec 1818 – 4 Jan 1819)

What do you think? Did Keats’s letter inspire the term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’?

PRB Paintings Inspired by Keats’s Poems

  • Holman Hunt: The Eve of St. Agnes (1848); Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868)
  • John Everett Millais: Lorenzo and Isabella (1849); The Eve of St. Agnes (1863)
  • Arthur Hughes: Eve of St. Agnes (1856)

Celebrate John Keats’s birthday by joining the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association


  1. Very interesting. I wonder how big a role the PRB played in establishing Keats? I would love to see something about the exhibition - possibly in 1848? - in which the Pre-Raphs exhibited some paintings inspired by Keats poems? It was a big year for Keats with Milnes’ biography. Which made the greater difference I wonder?

    J Kidd responded at 06:07pm on 11/22/2011

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.