Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Pre-Raphaelite Haters Then and Now

Dinah Roe

Pre-Raphaelite Haters Then and Now A Critical Heritage

If the Pre-Raphaelites were still around today, they would no doubt be thrilled to find that they are still causing a stir. A quick peek at the ‘Comments’ inspired by the recent Observer online article about the upcoming Tate Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition reveals that viewers are as divided as ever about the significance of Pre-Raphaelitism.

The debate the young upstart Brothers intentionally started about contemporary art in 1848 still rages today. Then as now, while some people enjoy the unsettling beauty of the bright Pre-Raphaelite colour palette, others are put off by the movement’s eroticised depiction of women and heavy-handed symbolism. Still more are unhappy with them for not being French Impressionists.

It should not be forgotten that painting was only one aspect of the group’s aesthetic agenda, which extended into literature, design, photography and even home decor. Forerunners of Aestheticism, they believed in the powerful interaction of the physical world and the human imagination. The Pre-Raphaelites were certainly a group whose ambition sometimes outran their talent, but as Robert Browning (a friend and mentor to the movement) reminds us in his poem about a painter, Andrea Del Sarto: ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?’

Pre-Raphaelitism has always been as much defined by its haters as by its fans. Both are equally responsible for the Pre-Raphaelites’ fame. As the reviews of the Tate exhibition come out in September, I predict that those who attack it will echo their Victorian forebears. These critics reacted with horror at the 1850 exhibitions of PRB paintings at the Royal Academy and the Free Exhibition. Significant paintings were: Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini; Hunt’s A Converted British Family ...’;  Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, and Deverell’s Twelfth Night:

[On Ecce Ancilla Domini] An unintelligent imitation of the mere technicalities of old Art–golden glories, fanciful scribblings on the frames, and other infantine absurdities–constitutes all its claim. (Athenaeum)

Can [Deverell] paint by the light of common sense as well as he can in the style nonsensical? for if he can, he might be a powerful painter: as it is, he is little more than a powerful practical joker, a self-burlesquer. (Spectator)

Sydney Smith said that Quakers would, if they could, have clothed all creation in grey. The “P.R.B.” would be bolder still, for they would beat it out flat, and make men and women like artfully-shaped and coloured pancakes. (Illustrated London News)

‘monstrously perverse’ (Spectator)

The attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, and even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness, is disgusting…’ (The Times)

Though interesting to the eye of medicine, to the non-professional beholder they are unpleasant–not to say, revolting. (Punch)

they dream of material beauty, but they never get beyond the study of the skeleton. (Art Journal)

prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting. (Charles Dickens, Household Words)

... the mountbank [sic] proceedings of a small number of artists who, stimulated by their own conceit, and by the applause of a few foolish persons, are endeavouring to set up a school of their own. We allude, [sic] to the pre-Raphaelites.
(Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine)

We have lingered too long over this frantic trash. (Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine)

Since Pre-Raphaelitism’s debut, its criticism has been marked by contradictions so extreme that it is difficult to believe critics are discussing the same movement.  The movement is at once childish and pornographically adult; radical and conservative; respectful towards women and scornful of them. The Tate’s 1984 major Pre-Raphaelite show was reviewed in the New Statesman as ‘Mrs. Thatcher’s Neo-Victorian Age’ while the Sunday Telegraph was disgusted by its bohemianism and ‘druggy’ muses.

Where nineteenth-century critics initially attacked the movement for its realism, twentieth and twenty-first century haters dislike its symbolism and fantasy. But the notion that it is childish, vulgar and repulsive persists:

Columnist Joe Queenan, for instance, writes: ‘I know of no Pre-Raphaelite paintings that are not vulgar and stupid; they make Boucler and Fragonard look like gritty urban realists. They are easily the worst painters that ever lived.’

The Observer’s Laura Cumming, sounding not unlike a Spectator critic of 1850, is repulsed by Christ’s ‘alarming varicose veins’ in Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death and by Rossetti’s ‘monstrous regiment of women: one after the other, all the same, including the so-called portraits, with their square jaws and centre partings, their swollen necks and blood-leeching lips.’

Andrew Marr blames Rossetti for the ‘luxurious Classical fantasies and dreamy Arthurian nonsense’ that led the Pre-Raphaelites into a ‘dead end’, essentially holding Rossetti responsible for not being Cézanne: ‘British nineteenth-century painting never had a Cézanne to connect it to the following century. I suppose if it was Rossetti to blame, then as the son of an immigrant Italian, he at least ensured that Raphael had the last laugh.’

Germaine Greer also blames the Pre-Raphaelites for not being French: ‘while France was experiencing the dazzle of the impressionists, Britons were happy to applaud and reward the false sentiment, fancy dress and finicking pseudo-realism of a dreary horde of pre-Raphaelites.’ Surprisingly perhaps, it is Germaine Greer who sounds the most ‘Victorian’ in her dismissal of Pre-Raphaelitism: ‘The PRB led its followers into a welter of truly bad art: stultified, inauthentic, meretricious and vulgar.’

In the slew of reviews which is sure to follow the Tate’s exhibition, it will be entertaining to see how many of these objections resurface. I have always wondered why Pre-Raphaelitism inspires such vehement reactions. What do you think? Do you love or hate Pre-Raphaelitism? Why or why not? 



  1. The grossly ignorant views expressed by today’s critics should perhaps come as no surprise. After all, they are only doing their best to live up to their predecessors’ reputation for spinelessness and strict conformity to conservative values. It is not at all surprising that some of them should even see something “meritricious” or “vulgar” in Pre-Raphaelite Art. In so doing they merely re-echo the contempt once shown towards the Pre-Raphaelites by those critics whose comments earned them a stern rebuke from Ruskin in his letter to the Times in May 1851.
    What is to be regretted even more is that, whether wittingly or not, these contemporary reviewers end up by lending support to some very outlandish policies which have nevertheless enjoyed quite widespread prestige among the current crop of European leaders, namely, the cuts and austerity plans now well under way in most countries. What they all have in common is this view that there is indeed something “meritricious” and “vulgar” about art, and not only art, but also education in general. Therefore governments must strip public budgets of everything that is not of immediate concern to the 1% of the wealthiest. At any event, these harsh critics should not be dismissed lightly. They are only the visible symptoms of a far more dangerous disease that has been eating away at the very heart of Europe’s best humanitarian tradition. Perhaps, it was Ruskin who best described the situation when he wrote:
    “The work to which England is now devoting herself withdraws her eyes from beauty, as her heart from rest; nor do I conceive any revival of great art to be possible among us while the nation continues in its present temper. As long as it can bear to see misery and squalor in its streets, it can neither invent nor accept human beauty in its pictures; and so long as in passion of rivalry, or thirst of gain, it crushes the roots of happiness, and forsakes the ways of peace, the great souls whom it may chance to produce will all pass away from it helpless, in error, in wrath, or in silence.”
    (JOHN RUSKIN in his “Giotto & his works in Padua”)
    Marcos David de Paula

    Marcos David de Paula responded at 10:03pm on 08/22/2012
  2. I love their art, for being all that it is hated for: vulgar, stupid, pornographic, druggy, and all that: no boundaries, just good topics and concepts. When you have such a combination it must be a masterpiece! me thinks…
    I recently went to the Tate Britain to see Ophelia and Lady of Shallot. And I was amazed, a totally new art form… a joy to see for sure. As you said, one that transcends literature, design, photography and home decor. I think it was just what I was looking for: something that touched all my passions. Can wait to see the new Tate’s exhibition.

    Julian responded at 02:20pm on 08/24/2012
  3. Julian, I agree with you that there is no substitute for seeing paintings in person. There is no other way to fully appreciate the Pre-Raphaelite colour palette. Loved your comment that you enjoy it for ‘all that it is hated for’. I bet lots of other fans of the movement would second that!

    Dinah responded at 05:15pm on 08/24/2012
  4. Hello Marcos,

    Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful comments, and for sharing a great Ruskin quote. You also bring up an interesting link between the political and the artistic - a persuasive rebuttal to the commonplace charge that the Pre-Raphaelites are not political…real food for thought…

    Dinah responded at 05:24pm on 08/24/2012
  5. Dear all,

    Sometimes I get myself thinking that I have been spending my life over the works by the Pre-Raphaelites and it might take the rest of it to understand and fully comprehend them. From analysis that take a political approach to economical and social ones. Art and literature suits my taste better. I embarked in a PhD on the treatment of the emotions presented in the canvases and poetry from this particular group. It is taking a while to produce the whole thing but I am sure Ill get there, eventually. It is interesting to see that many of you do see their art in very different perspective… even seen one or two over the approach of sexual agenda…. would not bare myself thinking in those works as such. As they were and considering the Victorian status they were in, unlikely we’d think they were pervert in the sense of the time. Evasiveness, perhaps…. Their works, at that level, should be considered in their Medievalism rather than sexualised pretense, i believe. More importantly, their assertion to the Realism revival of the time and their great interest in converting surely the principles of the Royal Academy….. for they had “always” in mind they would change the principles and advance the Academia…. as far as they were concerned, that was far behind the Academias elsewhere, shall we mention Germany and France…. In September we shall see their appearance once again in British soil…. and we’d celebrate once again, the art this nation has developed and conquered so far…. at last….. now, we can surely say, we are in the right path and hand in hand with the others we once were behind, say France, for instance.

    Marcio responded at 09:57pm on 08/31/2012
  6. Hi Marcio,

    You write that it might take you the rest of your life to understand Pre-Raphaelitism - I could think of worse ways to spend your time! Hope you continue to enjoy your study, and I wish you the best of luck with your continuing work.

    Dinah responded at 06:47pm on 09/02/2012
  7. This is an unrelated question, but are you related to Nicholas Roe, biographer of Keats? I saw the book in Waterstone’s the other day and wondered whether there was a connection.

    On a more PRB side, I saw the book. I never thought very highly of DG Rossetti’s skill, (compared to Millais) but the details captured in the photos were really good.

    caroline responded at 09:05pm on 10/06/2012
  8. Hi Caroline,

    Although we do share a surname and an interest in the nineteenth century, we are not related. But I am a great fan of his work on the Romantics. If you haven’t read it already, have a look at his ground-breaking biography of Leigh Hunt, ‘Fiery Heart’. I am .looking forward to reading his new Keats biography. 

    Your observations on Rossetti’s skill were / are shared by many critics, so you are not alone in your evaluation! But Rossetti was doing something very different from Millais, as you can see from the very beginning. His pictures are not admired for their draughtsmanship or technical flair, but for Rossetti’s startling originality in the treatment of his subject-matter, and the way in which he privileges colour and mood. For a closer look at his work, see Alicia Craig Faxon’s definitive ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’

    By the way, I’ve just visited your c19th blog and had a whale of a time taking the ‘which Bronte sibling are you?’ quiz. Happily, I was Charlotte and not Branwell!

    Dinah responded at 12:56pm on 10/13/2012
  9. Germaine Greer’s splenetic criticism of the art of the PRB in her Guardian column in 2009 so annoyed me with its condescension and its use of literary-critical concepts inappropriate for reviewing visual art that l responded with a textual analysis of her review, available here:

    peter responded at 02:58pm on 12/03/2012

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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.