The Pre-Raphaelite Marketplace
In 1876, The Galaxy Magazine drew its readers’ attention to a new trend overtaking the streets of the English capital:
We have now in London pre-Raphaelite painters, pre-Raphaelite poets, pre-Raphaelite novelists, pre-Raphaelite young ladies, pre-Raphaelite hair, eyes, complexion, dress, decorations, window curtains, chairs, tables, knives forks and coal-scuttles. We have pre-Raphaelite anatomy, we have pre-Raphaelite music…
This breathless article was somewhat disingenuous; its author, Justin McCarthy, was an Irish politician, novelist and journalist who moved in Pre-Raphaelite social circles. A former editor of the Morning Star and a leader-writer for the Daily News since 1871, McCarthy knew how to write an effective puff piece about his friends.
Pre-Raphaelitism was hardly a new phenomenon of the 1870s; it had been going on for some time, beginning in 1848 with the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young artists determined to kick against the staid and dull traditions of British Royal Academy painting. It had been reinvigorated by the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery, and a middle class aspirational hankering after the Pre-Raphaelite style.
The movement was everywhere in the 1870s, mainly because it had started to appeal to the ordinary consumer. The pseudo-medieval fashions and Asian-influenced homewares on offer at Liberty & Co of Regent Street meant that Pre-Raphaelitism was no longer the exclusive preserve of wealthy industrialist collectors and bohemian art-lovers; a movement that had once been edgy and avant-garde had been embraced by the Victorian mainstream. Lazenby Liberty himself, who bragged in the press about his Pre-Raphaelite friends and customers, became known as ‘The Man who Killed the Best Parlour’.
The commercial aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism survives in today’s marketplace, which is teeming with products, from cheap and cheerful Pre-Raphaelite mugs, tea-towels and calendars to high-end reproduction furniture and clothing. The movement’s enduring aesthetic appeal is often dismissed as a bourgeois materialism at its most thoughtless, but I think there is something more interesting going on here.
Oscar Wilde said he loved the Pre-Raphaelites because ‘they had on their side three things that the English public never forgives: youth, power and enthusiasm.’ The purpose of this blog is to bring Pre-Raphaelitism out from underneath the smothering influence of the reproduction Morris tea cosy,* and to recall the youth, power and enthusiasm which breathed life into this movement in the first place.
*In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I own many mockable Pre-Raphaelite products, including a tea towel, numerous fridge magnets, and a ‘floaty pen’ containing the Lady of Shalott.