Monday, 28 February 2011

The Formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

William Holman Hunt
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of young artists who, in 1847 joined together to resist what they considered to be ‘degenerate tendencies’ in the art of their time. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt shared a studio and through Hunt, Rossetti met Millais and helped to start what they called a " Cycle-graphic Society," for artists to contribute drawings to a portfolio which was sent round for all the rest to criticise.

Reaction to fashionable teaching

This idea was doomed from the start but led to a meeting at Millais's home, where they studied engravings of the frescoes in the Campo Santo at Pisa. They agreed that artists who preceded Raphael had a feeling for ‘earnest work’ which was worth more as an inspiration than the stereotyped painting fashionable in England at the time.

Formation of the Brotherhood

The brotherhood was originally a secret society founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. Two more artists,  James Collinson and F G Stevens were admitted, as well as a sculptor, Thomas Woolson.   The main aim of their brotherhood was to reform the state of English painting.

Connection with Raphael

The way this ‘brotherhood’ became connected to the name of Raphael is therefore less about Raphael than it is the history of European art and the teaching of the day, which is summed up in the following passage by Ruskin :

"We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of  fifteen or sixteen that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet original manner: that is to say, he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules, is to have a principal light occupying one-seventh of its space, and a principal shadow occupying one-third of the same ; that no two people's heads in the picture are to be turned the same way, and that all the personages represented are to have ideal beauty of the highest order, which ideal beauty consists partly in a Greek outline of nose, partly in proportions expressible in decimal fractions between the lips and chin ; but partly also in that degree of improvement which the youth of sixteen is to bestow upon God's work in general."

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: 'La Donna Della Finestra'

Love's pallor and the semblance of deep ruth
Were never yet shown forth so perfectly
In any lady's face, chancing to see
Grief's miserable countenance uncouth,
As in thine, lady, they have sprung to soothe,
When in mine anguish thou hast lookd on me;
Until sometimes it seems as if, through thee,
My heart might almost wander from its truth.
Yet so it is, I cannot hold mine eyes
From gazing very often upon thine.
In the sore hope to shed those tears they keep;
And at such time, thou mask'st the pent tears rise
Even to the brim, till the eyes wast and pine;
Yet cannot they, while thou art present, weep.

Rossetti's model Jane Morris

First worked as a sketch in chalks in 1877, the version shown here is the oil painting completed in 1879.  The model was Jane Morris, who Rossetti had fallen in love with two years earlier.  It is claimed that Rossetti portrays Jane as 'La Donna Della Finestra' (The Woman in the Window) because she helped him overcome the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal – but that was fifteen years earlier in 1862.

A more likely explanation is that although they definitely had a deep emotional relationship, Jane Morris was the wife of Rossetti’s friend William Morris,  so their love allegedly was never sexual and Rossetti became totally obsessed with her. 

Inspiration for 'La Donna Della Finestra'

The idea of the woman in the window was inspired by Dante's Vita Nuova (The life of Nuova), which defined Rossetti's attitudes to love and was translated by him into English in 1850.  The woman appears at the window appears when Dante is grieving for the death of Beatrice and William Michael Rossetti wrote:

'Humanly she is the Lady at the Window; mentally she is the Lady of Pity. This interpretation of soul and body this sense of an equal and undefensible reality of the thing symbolized, and of the form which conveys the symbol this externalism and internalism are constantly to be understood as the key-note of Rossetti's aim and performance in art.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Visiting John Ruskin’s House at Brantwood

John Ruskin
It was a damp day but we had been looking forward to learning more about who John Ruskin really was, having been round the Ruskin Museum in Coniston a few days before.   The museum had been the idea of his assistant, the author and artist W. G. Collingwood and was really a memorial to Ruskin that raised more questions than it answered.

Ruskin’s later life

Brantwood is Ruskin’s house on the shore of Coniston Water, in the English Lake District, where he effectively retired to after a long and varied career.  For Ruskin, art was about truth above all things and, disappointed by the popularity of Impressionism, he turned to the support of philanthropic work such as the Arts and Crafts movement and Christian socialism. Sadly it is little known in the UK that Ruskin played an important part in the creation of the welfare state, pioneering the idea that the State should intervene to regulate the economy in the service of “social economy”, supporting charitable organisations and co-operatives.

Tour of Brantwood

As you approach Brantwood it is hard to get a sense of the whole building.  Designed to face the water of the lake, you only see the side view. It is immediately obvious, however, that this is no ordinary house, as there are turrets and embellishments typical of Ruskin’s love of the Gothic style.  Oddly, visitors are given a sticky blue label to wear - presumably to make it easy for the staff, before being ushered into a tiny viewing room to see an overlong video produced by the Ruskin Society that describes him as the greatest man who ever lived. Nice.

Escaping as quickly as we could, I found myself in Ruskin’s drawing room. At last I could really get a sense of being in his presence.  Although many of the original contents of the house were auctioned when he died, a lot has been tracked down by the Ruskin Society and returned, so it is easy to imagine him sat at his desk, looking out over Coniston Water.  Even more fascinating is his room upstairs, where he spent a long time suffering from ‘fits of melancholy’.  The effect was spoiled by a small notice that said the rooms had been switched round for some reason, so the room I was seeing was a ‘reconstruction’ from one of his sketches, rather than the real thing.

Ruskin’s bath chair

For me, one of the most poignant relics of John Ruskin at Brantwood was his wicker bath chair, waiting in the hall as if he may need it at any moment.  Until then, I had in mind the young and really quite handsome Ruskin, full of life and passionate about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  I suddenly realised that this house belonged to an older man, with a long white beard, who was frail and possibly lonely despite his many friends, really quite dependent on his staff.  I put my hand on the arm of the bath chair and felt a definite connection with him that was unexpectedly emotional.

Ruskin’s garden at Brantwood
It was still raining when we left the house but any visitor to Brantwood has to follow the narrow meandering path Ruskin built up the hillside to his ‘water reservoirs’ at the top.  Dug out under his precise supervision by a group of friends, these water catchments supply an ingenious irrigation system for the whole garden and run back down as little bubbling brooks that emerge quite naturally along the path.  I read later Ruskin’s garden had been over run by invasive Rhododendrons but was restored so that it is now much as he would have known it.

The Jetty

Ruskin’s stables have been imaginatively converted into a cafĂ©, with big pine tables in the stalls, so after a really good lunch we rounded off our visit by taking the short walk down to Ruskin’s private jetty on the lake.   In his dining room I had noted that some of the Victorian plates on display had been recovered from the water by the jetty (once again raising more questions than answers).  I stood there for a moment looking across the misty lake and thinking about John Ruskin.  It is impossible to come away from Brantwood without wanting to know more about him. Much more.  We should all be grateful to Emily Warren, John Ruskin's last pupil, who campaigned to have Brantwood made into a museum.