Pre-Raphaelites in The City: The Pre-Raphaelite Marketplace

Dinah Roe

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.

Lady of Shalott floaty pen

Responses

  1. I liked your article.  I was wondering where I might buy one of those floaty pens containing the Lady of Shalott?  I have been looking for one for about 7 years.

    Sincerely,
    Janice

    Janice Kay Wilson responded at 02:10pm on 07/14/2012
  2. Hi Janice,
    Sadly, I can’t help you with this one. I bought my own floaty pen at the Tate Britain gift shop in 1999. I’ve kept my eyes peeled ever since, but have yet to come across it again. I have high hopes for the upcoming Tate Pre-Raphaelite exhibition (Sept. 2012)!

    Dinah responded at 04:11pm on 07/14/2012

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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.